Will Czechs be willing to shell out for new 3G mobiles?

Nokia 3rd generation terminal concept picture

Now, the mobile phone has taken the Czech Republic by storm in the last five years; take a stroll around Prague and it seems everyone has one. Particularly popular among Czechs are short text messages or SMS. But doing anything more ambitious on a mobile - such as surfing the Internet - is still expensive, slow and frustrating. All that, however, could soon be a thing of the past. Rob Cameron reports.

Yes, mobile phones have certainly been a huge success in the Czech Republic, and SMS particularly so - get on a tram or sit down in a restaurant anywhere in the country and you'll see at least one person frantically thumbing the keypad on their mobile, sending messages to colleagues or loved ones. But while SMS has been a runaway success, the Internet-based WAP technology has been conspicuously less popular. WAP is slow and expensive, and the display screens of the present generation of phones are too small to display more than a few words and images. But in several years that will all change, with the introduction of 'third generation' or UMTS mobiles, which will begin to replace the current GSM phones in a few years' time. Ondrej Datka is a telecoms analyst for Patria Finance:

"The key new thing is the great speed at which data is transferred. This allows a wider spectrum of use for customers, starting from pictures, to getting on line with your mobile rather than depending on a fixed line."

UMTS phones will be able to handle 200 times more data than what is currently possible on a mobile phone. This quantum leap in technology will offer fast Internet access, real-time video calls, and audio and video content in almost broadcast quality. But the new phones will also be very expensive, and the real question is how many Czechs will be willing to shell out large amounts of cash for them. Roland Maler is General Director of RadioMobil, which operates the country's second largest network, Paegas. Maler is optimistic that everyone will be able to afford it:

"UMTS is being targeted at everybody - certainly to the businessmen, and also to private users. We see at the moment on the basis of the second generation that really everybody is interested in mobile communications and this will continue to be the case with the so-called third generation."

But Cesky Mobil, which runs the smaller network Oskar, is more cautious than the people at Paegas. They say that because 3G technology will initially be about speeding up data transfer, the new mobiles will be targeted primarily at businessmen. And in the beginning at least, says Cesky Mobil spokesman Igor Prerovsky, non-business customers will simply be priced out of the market:

"It's more likely that these type of services will be attractive mainly for business clients, corporate clients, first of all by the nature of the services: the new services will mainly enable faster data transfer, an expansion of database services. And at the same time the service will, at least in the first phase, probably be more expensive than the current mobile services based on GSM technology. This obviously means that customers will need to spend much more to enjoy the services, and obviously the consumer segment is much more sensitive about the price."

The analysts, however, are confident 3G mobiles will take off in the Czech Republic. 3G phones, they say, with their large colour screens and built-in video cameras, will completely transform the way we use our mobile phones. And it's only a matter of time until the technology becomes cheap enough to be accessible to all - or most of us - just as was the case with the mobiles so many of us carry around today.

And tune into Tuesday's Talking Point for more on the 3G revolution.