Tooling up for wireless

Firms need to start planning now, writes Antony Savvas

Firms need to start planning now, writes Antony Savvas

Companies will have to think about modifying their corporate systems from the end of this year if they want to keep up with the latest mobile technology. This is when new mobile services will start to appear, and the build-up to third generation (3G) technology will be in full swing.

In the UK, mobile phones, including those using Wap (Wireless Application Protocol), currently operate over GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks. These are used to receive and send data, such as e-mail and SMS (Short Message Service) content .

However, by the end of the year, all the big four operators will be building national GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) networks to support handsets and corporate servers equipped to receive and send data at speeds up to four times faster than today. This is 2.5G, the big step towards 3G, when data speeds could eventually reach 2mbps, enabling services such video-on-demand. At the moment, GSM and Wap phones receive and send data at about 10kbps.

When GPRS was first introduced to the market 18 months ago, speeds of 115kbps were mentioned, but that is only theoretically possible. Under 2.5G, actual speeds will be stated as data reception of 20-40kbps, with transmission of 10-20kbps.

While a Wap browser on a phone can still be used on GPRS networks, it will not be able to take advantage of the faster speeds.

Virgin Mobile is still working on a Sim card that will allow a conventional GSM phone to access Wap services, but delivery is late and the market is disappearing fast. BT Cellnet has claimed that within a year no new phones will be manufactured without GPRS and Wap will fade away as users upgrade.

To take advantage of GPRS and 3G, organisations will have to modify their servers to allow staff and customers to access Web sites or intranets.

Firms wanting data to be accessed via Wap devices have to do the same thing. The server modification for Wap is a relatively straightforward software download but Web site pages have to be reprogrammed in the Wap Markup Language (WML). To allow this information to be downloaded by phone without taking an eternity, logos and other graphics also have to be stripped out.

Under GPRS, normal HTML, or a variant of it, can be received by the user. In addition, the higher speeds and "always on" connection, which does not have to be dialled up each time, means the quality of the data does not have to be compromised.

BT Cellnet has just launched its initial GPRS service to the business market, based on Motorola hardware. It is currently only available in the southern counties and the London GPRS system, running on Nokia hardware, was about to be activated as we went to press. The rest of the UK will also be based on Nokia technology.

Although GPRS offers an always-on connection, service providers want to discourage users from taking this too literally. When the number of users reaches a critical point, the drain on the system starts to impact on transmission times. To encourage users to turn their phones off when they don't intend to use them, providers will have to decide on a pricing model that is attractive but not too liberal.

Operators will have to consider whether to make a basic access charge for a fixed period or charge by the second or type of service accessed. Alternatively, they could bill for each packet of data received or sent.

For its business service, BT Cellnet will make a basic access charge that covers each user for receiving or sending up to 50Mbytes of data per month.

Peter Lisle, BT Cellnet's GPRS programme manager said the 50Mbyte allowance is thought to be a decent-sized "abuse threshold".

An alternative to GPRS

The idea of 2.5G and 3G systems is that mobile technology can become fully packetised and be integrated with the IP (Internet Protocol) networks being adopted by businesses. However, for those companies who do not want the expenditure involved in adopting GPRS, or for those who cannot wait for 3G, there is High Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD). As the name implies, it is a good old-fashioned circuit-switched technology, which is what most mobile phones currently use.

HSCSD was launched by Orange last year, but it has only now made an appearance after Orange signed up two distributors to market it. Users slot a wireless-enabled PC card into their laptops or PDAs to enable them to access the Internet and retrieve and send e-mail or other data over a conventional Orange GSM network. This is done via an antenna on the PC card, which sticks out from the side of the machine. The top data speed is equivalent to the first GPRS networks, about 28kbps.

An alternative to Wap

In Japan, some seven million people use phones equipped with DoCoMo's i-mode service. The system uses a browser that can download a form of HTML content called compact HTML (cHTML). This is something that Wap cannot do. Logica wants to introduce something similar in the UK, but so far has not found an operator ready to adopt the technology. Future cHTML handsets in Japan will offer 128-bit secure encryption and support colour graphics and Java. DoCoMo has bought a stake in the TIW 3G consortium in the UK and could introduce i-mode when 3G is introduced in 2002 or 2003.

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