The backing of Asia's richest tycoon, Li Ka-shing, means this spring's launch of Hutchison's third-generation (3G) telecommunications services in Britain and Italy will garner huge international interest. Hong Kong-based Hutchison has been more publicly optimistic than many in the belief there will be sufficient paying customers keen to make real-time video calls, and download sports video clips, music, games and news services on to their mobile phones. There are undoubted opportunities in mobile data, but how to make money is a separate issue, particularly for operators that paid huge sums for 3G licences and invested in new networks. Finding a killer application - the equivalent of the way e-mail drove the explosive interest in the Internet or Tokyo teenagers downloading cute logos and jingles have propelled the success of NTT DoCoMo - is the industry's holy grail. One may well emerge, in time. But trying to run a capital-intense telecoms business on the back of predicting consumer tastes may not be a sensible strategy. Industry consultancy Gartner estimates wireless data services across Asia-Pacific will be generating US$35 billion worth of revenues in three years, equivalent to more than 25 per cent of mobile service revenues. Where will this demand come from? Research suggests enterprise customers - businesses, governments and other organisations - may be the real drivers for mobile data services rather than consumers. Enterprise customers will adopt wireless data services to improve business processes, reduce costs and increase revenues. The greatest potential is in organisations where the workforce is spread out, where these people need access to critical information to make decisions or provide customer service while in the field, and where an hour not being connected is an hour of lost opportunities. Utility companies in Asia, northern Europe and North America are showing particular interest in wireless data services, as are service and production firms that rely on mobile workers. Utilities, for example, see efficiencies in reading data from gas, electricity or water meters without needing to dispatch staff to visit customers. Trials are under way to read meters across some of Australia's sprawling suburbs. For such enterprises, the benefit comes from taking an existing process, such as customer relations management, job tracking, stock control or information management processes, and wringing out efficiencies by freeing staff from having to be in fixed locations. One defence organisation reduced average vehicle maintenance downtime by nearly 90 per cent by allowing field technicians wireless access to centralised reference information. Wireless technologies that accelerate the flow of time-critical information have the potential to generate significant returns for enterprise customers. But how can telecoms operators benefit? Many operators already have extensive portfolios of enterprise customers. They have the systems and infrastructures to provide, maintain, bill and service such customers. However, operators need to do more than 'own' the customer relationship. Successful mobile phone operators are learning to source and deliver third-party content for consumers, whether the content is fancy ring tones or stock market prices. But the environment is more complex for mobile data services for enterprise customers. Potential customers need to hear a convincing business case from operators. Corporate customers are less willing to buy mobile data services off the shelf. Devices and services need to be customised to work with an enterprise's existing systems, which often involve proprietary software and networks. Operators need to rely on outside specialists to develop such devices, business services and content. The challenge is how best to marshal and manage this new network of specialist business partners. The putative business model for a telecoms operator, therefore, puts a premium on extracting value from multiple business partners. Sounds familiar? It is a Dell-style personal computer business model. Effective partnerships are as important as customer relationship programmes. As operators work with more partners to supply mobile data services, they need guarantees about levels of service, intellectual property rights, customer support, revenue sharing and a host of other matters. All have to be identified, prioritised and managed. In effect, telecoms firms need customer loyalty programmes, offering closer relations and better deals for partners whose products and services encourage enterprise customers to spend more and use more bandwidth. South Korea's SKTelecom is one of the first to try to orchestrate its partner relations in this way. Telecoms firms that play to their strengths could revive flagging Arpu (average revenues per unit) with mobile data services aimed at the enterprise market. It may not be as cool as trying to sell to Asia's fickle teenagers, but who ever said no to a source of profit just because it is not trendy? Based in Hong Kong, Ahbay Raman is part of the regional telecommunications team at Deloitte Consulting, soon to be Braxton.