Mobile communications: Big in Japan

Following its success in Japan, the mobile communication technology GPRS is coming to the UK. But does it work? Can users believe...

Following its success in Japan, the mobile communication technology GPRS is coming to the UK. But does it work? Can users believe the hype? It needs to be more than just fast and reliable if it is to achieve widespread consumer buy-in on this side of the pond.

Considering the damp squib that became wireless application protocol (Wap) technology, prospective GPRS users are adopting a more cagey attitude to this latest development in mobile technology. One can't imagine hoards of users scuttling off to their local mobile phone store with the express intention of purchasing a GPRS handset before the technology and the various applications on offer have had a chance to prove themselves. The marketeers, therefore, are saddled with the task of trying to promote a service to the same users who relatively recently felt jilted by Wap's flagrantly ambitious claims, smoke-and-mirrors marketing hype and performance that's decidedly below-par. Surf the Web indeed! What twaddle!

But if the industry analysts are to be believed - with assertions that 3G is the holy grail of mobile communications - then GPRS, general packet radio switch, or 2.5G as it is known in some circles, ought be taken seriously.

The technology
GPRS has three significant advantages over Wap: it provides always-on connectivity, mobile users get modem-speed data rates and the option of making voice calls while logged on to the Internet. These benefits are realised by the user through convenience, improved mobile Internet performance and cost.

Whereas Wap uses circuit-switched technology where a circuit connection is set up between the caller and the called party, GPRS connection is always on, thus negating the need to 'dial-up' to communicate. Significantly, the circuit switch connection is held open for the duration of the call in much the same way as a dial-up modem connection is, so the caller is billed for the use of air time during the call or connection. GPRS uses a packet switched transmission technique where information is split into 'packets' of data that are routed independently through the network over different paths to the final destination. Similar to Japan's hugely successful i-Mode service, the cost to the user is determined by the amount of information or packets 'consumed' or sent during up and download. With a free connection, you only pay for what you use.

As for the speed or power of the connection, which is the single most important factor when rating the quality of Internet availability, there is still uncertainty and disagreement. "Theoretically, the GPRS network should be able to deliver as much as 170kbps, but data rates of between 115 and 120kbps is a more realistic figure. In practice, however, speeds of between 40 or 50kbps are attainable," says Ovum's director of wireless research, Jeremy Green.

Regardless of the bandwidth delivered by the network, first generation GPRS handsets have proven to be the weakness in the communication link with only a capacity to handle data rates in the region of 20kbps. This is expected to roughly double by the end of 2001 with handsets such as Ericsson's T39 already boasting performance figures of 42.3kbps.

Recent 'live' tests indicate that even 40kbps is a little optimistic. Speeds comparable to the more modest home-based modem dial-ups over a standard BT line are more realistic. That said, the 20-30kbps that GPRS will be able to offer its users from the outset is still appreciably better than what Wap was offering at a similar time in its development.

The players
To make use of GPRS, one needs a GPRS-compatible handset. At the time of going to press only two handset manufacturers, Motorola and Ericsson, could oblige. The dire shortage of available handsets at the start of 2001 seems to be a thing of the past with the CarPhone Warehouse reporting that supply is more than meeting demand. A greater variety of makes and models is expected to flood the market by the fourth quarter of this year, as the usual players - Alcatel, Samsung, Mitsubishi, NEC, Panasonic, Phillips, Sendo and Siemens - enter the GPRS fray. Nokia, which currently claims the lion's share of the 2G-handset market, is conspicuous by its absence.

Bluetooth technology, which has enjoyed a lot of press attention during the course of the past 12 months, is sure to benefit on the back of mainstream GPRS rollout. Bluetooth provides cable-free connectivity between mobile phones, mobile PCs, handheld computers and other devices, effectively making cable and infrared connections redundant. Anticipating Bluetooth's potential in terms of practicality and user friendliness, the latest Ericsson handsets feature a built-in Bluetooth port, which negates the need to add on unsightly contraptions to ensure the delivery of high-speed mobile Internet services over short distances.

GPRS makes use of the existing cellular telephony networks and terrestrial-based antennae and base stations meaning that the same four telcos will provide the backbone through which GPRS services are offered. This is good news to consumers because the relatively modest infrastructure cost laid out by the telcos should ensure that tariffs for use of the network are likely to stay correspondingly low. At present, only Vodaphone and BT Cellnet offer the GPRS service, but Orange and One-2-One are expected to confirm that they will be launching their services by Q4 this year.

What's in it for the users?
One of the most difficult GPRS questions to answer at the moment concerns private and corporate use and which group of users is likely to be at the front of the early adoption queue. History suggests that the corporate environment is most likely to be targeted by the service providers, but there is nothing to indicate that there will be anything but a parallel development where the boundaries between the two user-groups becomes blurred and, to a greater degree, irrelevant. In terms of meaningful applications that can be offered via the GSM networks, much has still to be developed by the service providers. Recent surveys conducted by Ericsson indicate that the demand for mobile email access is considered to be the most desirable service, with approximately a third of respondents citing this as the most coveted application, followed by sports news (26%), news and weather (25%) and banking services (23%). From a corporate perspective the ability to access the corporate intranet and make real-time adjustments to daily schedules from remote locations is at present the most advantageous use of the technology.

Paul Salusbury, Ericsson's UK business development director, believes that "GPRS is all about improving the effectiveness and efficiency of employees who are out of the office by allowing them to access work-related information quickly and easily. It allows them to update and synchronise diary appointments in real time with office-bound colleagues."

Speculation about transactional applications representing the real value to the corporate market has been considerable. Online banking, mobile procurement and commerce and online share dealing are certain to become commonplace as communication continues to develop. The time scale, however, is less clear.

The cost factor
As with all forms of communication, once the hardware has been acquired, (in this case handsets, which currently retail for between £30 and £100), the real costs are incurred by the use of the various services on offer.

At present the telcos are remaining fairly tight-lipped about the types of costs likely to be incurred by the user. What is certain though is the fact that pricing structures are in their infancy with scope for development and tailoring of packages to suit specific user groups.

"The operators will soon decide what their billing methodology is," says Salusbury. "You and I as end-users aren't necessarily interested in how many kilobytes of information we're sending - we're more interested in the content and the usefulness of the applications that we use. I think that the billing structures will evolve over time where your service provider will, for example, offer you access to your corporate email as a medium or high user, which means that you will have access to Outlook and your various attachments. You will pay for this service, and you will be billed for it in a lump sum at the end of every month."

It is likely, therefore, that the billing structures offered by the individual GPRS service providers will follow along the same lines as their television counterparts where the subscriber opts for any number of services from the suite on offer by the service provider.

GPRS is here and it's here to stay - for the time being at least, until it is superseded by 3G. But in terms of that evolutionary process, where exactly are we? "Messaging is a good example to use to illustrate our current position," says Salusbury. "At the moment we have SMS [short messaging service] and even EMS [enhanced messaging service] where I can send small icons or music samples. Text messages were essentially a one-to-one communication where now, if I send a number of cartoon characters, they can be forwarded to friends and colleagues. In the foreseeable future MMS [multimedia messaging service] will allow us to convey still pictures while 3G is all about video streaming. Instead of just getting the latest sports updates, with 3G you could view footage of the latest action."

As is so often the case with new technologies, it is the early adopters who get the jump on the competition. In the case of GPRS and eventually 3G, the technology is not going to go away. On the contrary, the acceleration of the development of new products, applications and services is likely to continue indefinitely. Familiarity of use and devising ways in which the technology can assist your organisation in the daily transaction of its core business is not only an option; it's a necessity.

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