Beginning next week, Vodafone, Europe's largest mobile phone company, will begin offering customers in selected markets high-speed mobile data service based on new 3G (third-generation) technology,

More than three years after acquiring pricey mobile broadband licenses around Europe, Vodafone is entering the new wireless market with the launch of a dual-mode PC card for 3G and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) networks. The data card service for notebook users is the first of its kind in Europe, according to the company.

The Vodafone Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS data card will initially allow users to download data at speeds up to 384K bps (bits per second) and upload at speeds up to 64K, according to Vodafone spokeswoman Emma Conlon. The service is roughly 10 times faster than GPRS.

Vodafone will launch the data card service next week in the UK and Germany, and in Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden over the next four weeks. The company will expand 3G coverage continually to its other markets over the next four years.

Although pricing for the new Mobile Connect service will vary from country to country, Conlon said it will be based on GPRS tariffs and include a premium fee, which she declined to provide. To use the service, customers must pay for a data card, monthly subscription and transmission usage.

Commercial 3G phone service is slated for the second half of this year, according to Conlon. The launch, she said, depends to large extent on the availability of quality handsets.

Availability of light, low-power phones continues to be a major challenge facing operators. Europe's first 3G operator, Hutchison 3G was forced to drop a planned Christmas promotion for a prepaid phone service after its suppliers, Motorola and NEC failed to deliver enough lighter, less energy-consuming handsets before the holiday shopping rush.

The commercial 3G data service only covers London and along the M4 corridor, but Vodafone has promised to extend coverage to other major cities by April, including Birmingham and Manchester. By spring it expects to reach around a third of the population.

Consumers will have to wait several months for Vodafone's 3G services, when the company adds it to its Vodafone Live! service.