The next wave of mobile telecommunications is finally upon us, the chief executive officers (CEOs) of two network operators and one equipment manufacturer announced here at the 3GSM World Congress on Monday

When Orange SA brings its 3G (third-generation) mobile communication services to market in France and the UK in the fourth quarter, the four vital elements will be ready: network infrastructure, services, phones - and customers, according to Thierry Breton, CEO of Orange's parent company, France Télécom.

It's going to be a close thing for the phones, though, his colleague Didier Quillot, CEO of Orange France, later pointed out: handset availability is definitely the weakest of the four pillars on which Orange's launch plan is based. The company is testing several handsets, including LG Electronics's clamshell form-factor U8150 and Motorola's soapbar-shaped A835.

Construction of 3G networks in France and the UK is already well under way: around 40 percent of the population of each country are within range of a 3G base station today, although the performance of some of those transmitters has not yet been fine-tuned

Customers' appetites for 3G mobile services have been whetted by fixed-line broadband internet access, the market for which has boomed in the UK and France in the last two years.

They are used to having a range of services at their fingertips, and then want access to that environment wherever they go. Breton showed by means of graphs how the availability of, and demand for, bandwidth over mobile networks has followed on the heels of improvements in fixed networks in France.

This gradual build-up in usage has been mirrored by a gradual fall in the cost of data transmission, he said. To send up to 160 bytes by SMS (Short Message Service) costs around 10p. Sending around 50kb by MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) costs 27p. Transmitting 1MB GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) costs about 67p.

According to a slide Breton showed, transmitting 10MB over 3G should cost less than 67p. Quillot said tariffs for 3G services were likely to include bandwidth bundled with wireless LAN services, and also pay-per-event pricing such as charges per multimedia message sent or video clip received.

The launch of the second generation of mobile communications services, using GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) technology, was more than a decade ago. Back then, wags suggested that GSM actually stood for "God send mobiles," because although the networks were ready and customer demand was building, mobile phones were in short supply.

Some things never change.