The final frontier

Will the next generation of mobile phones enable businesses to explore strange new worlds? Philip Hunter boldly goes into the...

Will the next generation of mobile phones enable businesses to explore strange new worlds? Philip Hunter boldly goes into the latest developments in 2G and 3G networks

The biggest single advance in wireless data communications to happen this year is not in the much-hyped third generation (3G) mobile networks needed to deliver high bandwidth applications such as video on demand, but in the second generation GSM field. The development enables the phone to be permanently switched on to packet-based IP data services.

At present the user has to establish a dial up connection to send or receive data (other than short text messages via SMS). The "always-on" capability will be provided by General Packet Radio Services (GPRS), which the mobile phone operators will be launching during the second half of this year. The fact that GPRS mobile phones will be permanently switched on to the network will make it feasible to deliver a range of services, including those based on push technologies.

GPRS supports bit rates of 56 kilobits per second (kbps), which is comparable with current fixed-line modems and considerably faster than existing GSM mobile data services running at 9.6kbps, and this will be essential for some of the new applications. But the always-on capability is the clinching feature.

For this reason BT Cellnet's head of commercial development for data services Stewart Newstead is not alone in his belief that it is the roll-out of GPRS services this year rather than arrival of 3G networks in 2002 that will really usher in the new age of the mobile Internet. BT Cellnet is on course to be first out with a limited coverage GPRS service this month (June).

It is true that the revolution in data transport capacity needed for many high bandwidth services will have to wait for the 3G networks based on UMTS (Unified Mobile Telephony Services) technology, which will eventually support transmission rates up to 2 megabits per second per channel. Such services will fall into two categories: the mobile equivalents of services already available over fixed networks; and new applications unique to the wireless sphere that exploit or rely on the mobility of the user. Examples of the former include videoconferencing and video-on demand, while in the latter category come location-based services exploiting the ability to calculate the position of mobile phones.

Global Positioning System

Currently it is possible to locate phones to within 250 metres using the mobile operator's system, but worldwide coverage, as well as greater accuracy eventually down to a few metres, will be possible when handsets are equipped to access the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Many of these location-based services will not require the high transmission speeds of 3G networks. Indeed many of the new applications will begin to appear on the back of GPRS and will raise issues that will have to be faced before 2002.

Privacy is one of the major concerns, says IBM communications sector vice-president Val Rahmani, given that handsets will have the potential to track individuals' location and their activities. It will be possible, for example, for Web sites or portals to track people as they browse or make purchases from their mobile phones. It will be technically feasible for advertisers to monitor the whereabouts of individuals, unless such activities are banned. "Once we get location-based services the opportunities for advertisers will be incredible," says Rahmani.

According to Newstead, privacy over mobile networks can be handled in the same way as over the fixed Internet now. "I think the crucial thing will be that people will be able to opt in, just as with Internet-based services at present where you can tick a box to indicate that you don't want personal details or information to be passed to partners," says Newstead.

Location monitoring services

In some cases users will choose to have details of their location passed to specified individuals or companies, for example among a group of friends. "You could have a service that showed you where all your friends are," notes Newstead.

Such location monitoring services are also likely to become popular for businesses to keep track of their sales forces, or field service engineers, according to Mark Maloney, organiser of the Broadband Communication Europe 2000 telecoms exhibition. "Companies will be able to keep track of their sales people and engineers, and see how long they spend with specific customers, and feed that information directly into a database, cutting down on paperwork, and being able to analyse who has dealt with the most customers and been the most efficient," says Maloney.

For some people though such Big Brother monitoring could be counter productive, cramping their style and inducing paranoia, even though employers could argue they are entitled to know how their staff are spending their time while working.

And although mobile applications do not by themselves raise any new privacy issues, they are able to collect location-based information, which can then be correlated with other sources of data such as personal preferences. It is conceivable for example that a restaurant could identify people passing by who are known to like the kind of food it serves. The restaurant could then "push" a message perhaps advertising a particular menu to that person's mobile handset as they are passing.

There are plenty of less controversial 3G mobile applications without privacy implications, in particular those involving radio and video. According to Ericsson's head of corporate ventures Justin Chamberlain, one of the first multi-media applications, potentially interesting to businesses, will involve use of embedded radio within mobile Internet or intranet services delivered via wireless application protocol (Wap). "You could browse a piece of text and then click on an icon to listen to a radio clip, perhaps someone giving an opinion for two or three minutes," says Chamberlain.

In the corporate market, this could be a regular bulletin from the chief executive or head of department. Equally such clips could be broadcast to selected groups of individuals who would receive a short text instruction.

Such services will be enhanced to deliver full interactive radio broadcasts when IP streaming is supported over mobile networks, says Chamberlain. Then users will be able to access whole radio broadcasts on demand making selections within Wap sessions, turning their mobile handsets into music centres if desired. These radio services based on IP streaming may not have to wait for 3G networks, as they could be delivered over GPRS. But the network operators have not yet decided whether to introduce IP streaming over GPRS, or wait for 3G, which with the greater bandwidth, will be able to support them more comfortably.

What is certain is that the greater bandwidth will be needed to deliver video services, except where high picture quality is not essential for relatively low-grade conferencing. Some finance houses will want video content of their top executives, says Chamberlain. This content might be delivered on a push basis according to pre-specified criteria.

Intelligent search techniques

Such video applications will require intelligent search techniques to select the desired content automatically. On this front, many ventures are springing up between mobile phone manufacturers, software suppliers and mobile operators to develop applications for 3G networks. For example Ericsson is collaborating with a developer of video search algorithms to develop the required software.

The 3G networks themselves will not be sufficient to deliver the new broadband applications. The software framework for shaping and delivering the new content also needs to be in place, and much of the required development is associated with Wap.

According to Esko Hannula, head of product development for Nokia Internet Communications, two of the main areas of development are in support for push technology and in comprehensive security structures based on the Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). For the former, the Wap standard will incorporate a Push Proxy Gateway.

"This is a piece of software that takes the content from the applications and handles delivery of the required push message," says Hannula.

The Wap Forum, which is responsible for drafting the standards, has been careful to make the Push Proxy Gateway as flexible as possible so that it can cater for different delivery requirements, says Hannula. In some cases it will be sufficient just to put push messages addressed to specific subscribers out into the network and hope that they are received. In other cases proof of receipt will be wanted, just as it is sometimes with e-mail or conventional post. The push standard also has to cater for a variety of different target user devices and filtering options to ensure that the message can be delivered to any handset.

On the security front, mobile networks already allow users and services to authenticate each other, which is sufficient for some e-commerce applications. But for widespread deployment of mobile commerce, Hannula says, the public key infrastructure will need to enable all users to have their own recognised sets of encryption keys that can be used to obtain proof of identity from third-party certification authorities .These will also provide digital signatures. Security can be improved by holding such keys on a separate smartcard that could be slotted into a mobile handset. Therefore an important standard emerging from the Wap Forum is the Wap Identity Module. This specifies how the handset communicates with the smartcard, just as Bluetooth defines the connection with other peripheral devices such as printers or headsets.

Both the Wap Identity Module and the Push Proxy Gateway will be supported within the next version of the standard, Wap 1.2, which is expected to start being implemented towards the end of this year. The current version implemented in Wap handsets is 1.1.

3G networks' future

As for the 3G networks to be developed following the recent government licence auction, Ericsson's Chamberlain doubts that there will be any significant differences between them. The question is what will the two operators, TIW and Vodafone, which were allocated the largest slice of the radio spectrum, do? Vodafone paid an extra £2bn for its licence, which BT Cellnet's Newstead argues was a colossal waste of money. "Clearly there's a premium we would have paid, but nothing like £2bn," says Newstead.

Vodafone says having the larger slice of the spectrum will mean that less equipment will be needed to provide a given level of capacity and so in effect enable it to deliver the services more quickly and offset the premium paid.

In truth it is a trade-off between paying for the greater spectrum allocation and spending more on equipment to extract the needed capacity from a smaller frequency bandwidth. Such trade-offs are common in the IT cabling industry, where you have a choice between higher grade cables and more sophisticated terminating equipment.

Who will pay for the bidding war?

The exorbitant sums paid for the spectrum licences have forced some of the operators to look for more flexible commercial arrangements, such as using suppliers prepared to accept deferred payment in return for a share of the profits, when building their networks. BT Cellnet, for example, which is building its current GPRS network with equipment from Cisco and Motorola, has chosen Nortel for its 3G network. According to Newstead this was as much because of Nortel's enlightened commercial approach as any technical superiority.

The only impact for users may be the price levied on 3G services compared with GPRS ones, and the markets at which they are initially targeted. Mobile operators may choose to follow the book publishing model and start off with "hardback" versions of the new services to extract as much revenue as possible given the huge outlay on licences before rolling out paperback versions to the masses.

On the other hand the rule in the mobile market has been the-operator-in-the-market-first-wins, so there will be pressure on operators to match their rivals. It is also possible, some commentators say quite likely, that at least one of the operators will run into severe financial difficulties as a result of the huge outlay. This could enable some of the companies that lost out in the auction to enter the game at a later stage.

From 2G to 3G

The move from 2G to 3G mobile networks will be just one of four significant developments needed to deliver mobile data applications. 3G will bring broadband bandwidths of up to 2 megabits per second initially, which will enable video content, such as coverage of sports events, to be downloaded to mobile devices. It will also provide the bandwidth needed for remote monitoring and surveillance applications, as well as for high speed multi-channel services including voice, video and data within a single session.

But there are three other key data technologies all of which are or soon will be deployed over current 2G networks:

  • SMS (short message service) has proved capable of delivering a number of services that involve just figures or short strings of text, such as stock quotes

  • Wap allows Internet content to be displayed in limited form on mobile devices and also provides a framework for transaction-based services, especially in later versions of the standard

  • GPRS (general packet radio service) will be rolled out during the second half of this year.

    GPRS brings significantly higher bandwidth of up to 115kbps and "always-on" capability, which avoids the need for users to make a dial-up connection to access the Internet. Push services can be delivered much more effectively with GPRS for a variety of applications such as alerting users when a particular condition s met, like a share price falling below a specified value. The higher bandwidth is sufficient to deliver a range of new applications such as audio streaming and basic videoconferencing with acceptable picture quality for a head and shoulders picture. So given that GPRS facilitates some of the applications associated with 3G networks, it has been dubbed 2.5G in the trade.

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