European telco Sonera is celebrating the new year by announcing the start of its UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system) third generation mobile services in Finland's four largest cities.

But there is a catch. Handsets needed to take advantage of the high-speed data and multimedia services promised by 3G are not yet available. For the time being the network will be limited to testing by the company. Sonera was required under the terms of its government licence to launch the network by the start of 2002.

The long-awaited 3G service has faced repeated delays in Europe. O2, BT's newly spun-off wireless division, announced last month that its first network, serving a few customers on the Isle of Man, is operating, but it acknowledged more delays are ahead before mass-market service in the UK will be ready.

Currently Sonera's services are only running in the Helsinki metropolitan area, Oulu, Tampere and Turku.

"Of course we are depending on what handset manufacturers are saying, but basically the plan is to provide a commercial service in the last part of this year," said Jyrki Karasvirta for Sonera.

Karasvirta said that even when the 3G service is launched, he expects most customers to adopt it slowly.

"If you look at the experience we gained first from WAP (wireless application protocol) and then from GPRS (general packet radio service), the number of people who will buy new handsets is quite small," he said.

"Today we have some 10,000 GPRS users, while we have 2.4 million mobile phone users. This clearly indicates that the group of early adopters is quite small, and then the great masses accept the new services when they buy a new handset anyway" which, he added, Finnish users do an average of every two-and-a-half years.

Sonera's UMTS network equipment is supplied by Ericsson and Nokia.