Vodafone has launched its UK third-generation (3G) services for mobile phones, offering video calls, music downloads and games.
The 3G technology enables users to download data at a faster rate than before, offering better quality sound, pictures and video.
Until now, 3, owned by Hutchison, has been the only UK telecoms firm offering 3G services to mobile phones.
Orange and T-Mobile are set to launch their UK 3G services before Christmas.
However, 3G services will not be available everywhere – with all networks covering just parts of the country, mainly large population centres and key industrial areas.
In areas without 3G coverage, the phones will be using the operators’ network for GPRS phones, also known as 2.5G.
Vodafone is launching its 3G services in 13 countries and is aiming to attract 10 million 3G customers by March 2006.
The success of 3G services is seen as crucial to the company, which has spent Â£14.7bn ($27.3bn) around the world – Â£6bn in the UK – on 3G licences.
Rival 3, which launched its 3G services more than a year ago, says that it has managed to sign up 1.2 million UK subscribers.
Orange is expected to launch its 3G service in December, and claims that its network currently has the UK’s widest coverage of 3G services.
One device fits all
In April this year, Vodafone began selling 3G datacards in the UK that allowed internet connections to laptops at seven times the speed of fixed-line services.
Then in May, the company started its roll out of mobile 3G services by launching operations in Portugal and Germany.
Vodafone chief executive Arun Sarin said the company’s full 3G launch was “the start of a new era in mobile communications”.
“Customers want communication, organisation, entertainment and information on the move and they will increasingly turn to one device to deliver these needs – their mobile phone,” he added.
Vodafone’s 3G phones will enable users to make video calls, send and receive video clips, download full-length music tracks and watch Premiership and UEFA Champion’s League football highlights.
A range of 10 new 3G handsets is being launched – six in the UK – including what Vodafone says is Europe’s first two-mega-pixel camera phone, the Sharp 902.
No overnight success
Vodafone is launching two price packages for its 3G services. The Â£40-a-month package includes 500 minutes of voice calls, 100 text messages and 50 minutes of video calls.
Sending pre-recorded video messages will cost 60p per message, and the package also includes Premiership football highlights, breaking news and film trailers.
The Â£60-a-month bundle includes the same features but includes 1,000 minutes of voice calls.
Vodafone is also offering a pay-as-you-go service.
However, whether people will be prepared to pay more for the 3G services is not certain, experts said.
“The real question is whether it generates a lot more business for Vodafone,” Mark Newman, chief research officer at Informa Telecoms and Media, told BBC Radio Five Live.
“I think it’s questionable whether people are going to spend more money for 3G phones.”
While the 3 network has managed to attract more than a million customers, Mr Newman said this was “not because they’ve been offering more services but because they’re offering cut price phone calls”.
And he said it would take a long time before the mobile phone changed from being an ordinary communications tool into a multi-media centre.
“I think this will happen but it’s going to take 10 to 20 years rather than the overnight success that people were hoping for,” he said.