updated 2/23/2004 7:00:33 PM ET 2004-02-24T00:00:33

Trumpeting services like wireless video calls or satellite navigation, mobile phone companies showcased their latest wares on Monday amid hopes the long-awaited shift to “3G” advanced technologies has finally begun.

A whiff of economic recovery was in the air as tens of thousands of industry professionals flocked to a beach-front conference center in this French Riviera town for the opening of the 3GSM World Congress. Organizers of the four-day show said they had received 35,000 visitor registrations — almost one-third more than last year.

French mobile operator Orange SA touted its 3G, or “third-generation,” networks in a video conference with colleagues hundreds of miles away in the French cities of Lille and Toulouse. The demo featured a prototype of one of the phones Orange plans to bring to market in the next four months in France and Britain.

This “is clearly the year of broadband for our whole industry, and, of course, for the mobile industry,” said Orange chairman Thierry Breton, who is also chief executive of its parent company, France Telecom.

But the 3G strategy outlined by Breton also dampened any runaway expectations that the new high-speed data services will go mainstream across Europe anytime soon.

Orange is planning to bring 3G to 10 cities in Britain and 20 in France during 2004, but has no plans to introduce it in its other European markets: Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland.

In France, Breton said Orange hoped to bring the faster networks to a third of the population by the end of the year — but the rest could have to wait a lot longer. Orange only expects the service to reach 90 percent of French people by 2009.

But even if 3G networks are still some way off for many Europeans, this year’s 3GSM show is not short on innovations that will reach them sooner.

On Tuesday, Orange was to announce a partnership with Webraska, a Paris-based wireless service provider, to market phones with satellite navigation in France by the second quarter. The system is also being marketed in Germany by mobile operator O2.

Owners of high-end phones running on Symbian or Microsoft operating systems will be able to buy a GPS satellite navigation unit that communicates the user’s whereabouts to the phone via a Bluetooth wireless link while the handset downloads maps for the surrounding area.

“This is a market which is only beginning to wake up now, because the enabling technologies, the phones and the Bluetooth GPS, have only become available in the last few months,” said Webraska vice president Jonathan Klinger.

Among U.S. companies on hand, Florida-based NeoMedia Technologies Inc. ran demos of Paperclick, a mobile software that turns a camera phone into a bar-code reader able to check whether the product you are about to buy is overpriced.

The software goes online to download instant price comparisons to show you how much more cheaply you could find the same article in another store or online.

But retailers can breath easy — for the moment at least: NeoMedia said it had signed marketing deals with European partners only last month and did not give a definite launch date.

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