Way back in the swirling mists of time—well, OK, the year 2000, but in technology years, that might as well be the Renaissance—the UK held an auction of radio frequency licenses, to be used for the then-next-generation of mobile communications services. (Incidentally, those interested in the evolution of Web page design, may find the linked page of interest, thanks to the BBC’s policy of not migrating content every time they upgrade their site design. I rather like it, but that’s another story.)
At the time, there was no shortage of “brave new world” predictions about what consumers would soon be able to do with their 3G mobile devices (and to be fair, many of these applications we now take for granted a decade later). Remember that most mobile phones around 2000 looked like the Nokia 6210 I owned at the time (or was it a 6310i? no, I think that came later)—small greyscale displays, hardware buttons, no cameras, and so on. (As it happens, my 6210 and 6310i were pretty high-tech for the time; they had GSM—and later, GPRS—data connections, which in the case of the 6310i, I could hook up to with my Psion Series 5mx via an infrared link, to get online. All that probably comes over like tin cans and string now.)
But I digress. Whilst many of the promised applications of 3G did in fact come to pass, and we now take them for granted—mostly, in the area of mobile Internet access—there was one sci-fi-like development which seemed to promise so much, but a decade later seems to have disappeared almost without trace: 3G video-calling between mobiles.
There are all manner of possible reasons why “3G-native” video-calling (as opposed to Internet video calls—hold that thought) still hasn’t taken off even by 2011, but here are a few possibilities I thought of:
- The mobile networks themselves needed upgrading to allow for it, and that sort of thing comes neither cheaply nor quickly, so it took some time to roll out;
- for some years afterwards, most mobile phones weren’t equipped for video-calling, with secondary front-facing camera, etc. (my first such phone was the Nokia N95, launched in 2007);
- video-call charges have always been high, and remain so (see later);
- the technology has, arguably, mostly been superseded by Internet-based apps/services offering video-calling, such as Skype, MSN, etc. (many of which experience problems working over 3G, not least because the networks often interfere with them, but that’s quite another topic).
In 2011, more mobile phones than ever are capable of video-calling. (In passing: given the general assumption in many quarters that the iPhone is the very pinnacle of mobile technology, Apple didn’t add a front-facing secondary camera until the 4G model in 2010—three years after the Nokia N95, and that wasn’t even the first Nok to sport one.)
However, the mobile networks seem almost embarrassed by their video-calling services—as if they don’t really want to remind their users that the option exists—and anyone interested in further details frequently has to dig deep to find them.
In my case, however, I didn’t have to spend long digging around my network’s Web site, before I found the page where—for example—they give their charges for video-calling: 15p/min to the same network within the UK, and 50p/min to another UK network (same for an international video call).
In short, for video-calling to another user on the same network, my network charges about half the price of a regular voice call (roughly 30p/min). Although video calls aren’t eligible for the inclusive minutes on my contract, at the above price they still work out cheaper than a voice call. Little wonder, perhaps, that the networks don’t “push” the service too hard to their customers?
That leaves the question: how well do 3G voice calls work in practice? My wife and I tested it out this lunchtime with her new phone, when I called her from my Nokia N8. I was surprised how acceptable the quality was—subjectively, I could compare it to an average Skype call, with slightly lower audio fidelity, and slightly higher video quality than we usually see on Skype at home.
I could see us both using video-calling more in the future, particularly if one of us wanted to show the other something important (e.g. an item in a shop) from a distance. If we were apart and wanted to have a long video chat, I’d still use my netbook and try to access a WiFi network for Skype (at least until Skype adds video calling to its Symbian client), as for the moment at least, video calls between Skype users are free.
When I started this post, I thought 3G video-calling was an overpriced relic from the original mobile network dreams of a decade ago. Whilst I can’t say how long the service will survive in an age of Internet-based voice-over-IP systems, I admit I have changed my mind about 3G video calls from my mobile, and think I’ll be making a fair bit more use of them… at least, until Skype video-calling comes to my N8 🙂