NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON 3G CONTENT DEALS - Can content from magazines save 3G mobile companies?

Alasdair Reid investigates if 3G mobile businesses can earn back the licence price.

The whole 3G business makes a lot of people nervous. It's not hard to work out why. The five leading European mobile companies - Vodafone, mmO2, T-Mobile, Orange and Hutchison - spent a combined total of £22.5 billion on acquiring their licences in the UK alone. That's a sum equivalent to the GDP of Bulgaria. Multiply that many times over to get a notion of their commitment right across the continent.

Of course, there was a time when that sort of investment didn't seem like complete insanity, because there was a time when most analysts believed there would be huge demand for the sorts of fully streamed audio-visual content that 3G promises to deliver. Those days are long gone.

The most obvious doubts in recent months have been about the technology's ability to deliver and there have been worrying rumours emerging from recent 3G field trials. 3G is already months behind schedule and if the mobile companies don't launch soon then they may well miss the bus altogether, especially as existing technologies are being tweaked to offer some of the 3G promise such as sending digital images person to person.

A large question surrounds the type of services 3G will offer. Are the new handsets going to be used primarily as mobile video phones? Or is this about other forms of content?

Last week's deal between Vodafone and Emap might give us something of a hint, especially as it follows on the heels of another deal between Hutchison 3G and Emap. The Vodafone deal will give it access to content from titles such as Smash Hits, Q, Heat, Empire and FHM, and will allow it to plug into expertise developed by Emap Performance Interactive.

Last July, Hutchison also signed a £35 million three-year deal with the FA for rights to distribute Premier League content. 3G companies are desperate for material and media owners (and other rights owners) have them over a barrel.

Well perhaps. The 3G companies themselves point out that they don't have (any more) money to burn and that they still expect person-to-person services to lead revenue growth. They'll also expect media owners to take their share of the risk in developing the media content side. Are they kidding?

Julian Drinkall, IPC Media's group strategy director, says: "We are letting people know that our content is available. The main problem as far as I can see is that the deal structures and business models are not entirely clear. At what rate do they intend to invest? What are they putting into network capabilities compared with what they intend putting into content?

There are a lot of tactical timing issues on these things too. How much of a risk would we be asked to take? The nature of the relationship between the mobile operators and various intermediaries and the content providers needs to be worked on, but we certainly believe that the potential is there."

Observers point out that the publishers will be well up for this. They may have had their fingers burned where the internet was concerned but, in contrast, SMS text services are proving a nice little earner. It's easier to get people to pay for mobile content than content on the web.

Robert Horler, the managing director of Carat Interactive, has no doubts where the balance of power will lie.

"Some publishers' portfolios will translate well into mobile, especially if we're talking about the crucial teen end of the market. If we look at Emap, for instance, the 3G people need Emap more than Emap needs them. I think it's clear that the 3G battle will be fought in terms of exclusive premium content," Horler argues.

Nick Suckley, the managing director of Media.Com, agrees: "The network providers are paranoid about not making the same mistakes that the dotcoms made on the web - and in particular about not giving it all away for free.

The relationship between network providers and publishers will become increasingly important over the next couple of years, but I don't think that anyone believes mobile will become the primary outlet for teen magazine media brands. The network providers spent an absolute fortune on 3G licences and now they've got to find something that they can bill people for. I think a lot of them will try to sign up exclusive content. For publishers, though, it's just another distribution channel."

But some observers can scent blood. They argue that media owners can see the fear in the 3G players' eyes and they won't be able to resist making a quick killing.

As one source puts it: "The mobile players are like gamblers in a casino - they're down so far that they are no longer able to walk away from the table. They're desperate and everyone knows that the next big gamble might just clean them out altogether. Content owners are going to take them for everything they've got, aren't they? Stands to reason. Because the 3G people just might not be around in the morning."