Shaky start for Tokyo Bluetooth trials

Slow transmission speeds, shorter ranges and absent Handspring PDAs made for a shaky start to the first public trials of...

Slow transmission speeds, shorter ranges and absent Handspring PDAs made for a shaky start to the first public trials of Bluetooth technology in Japan.

The Bluetooth Launch Trial (BLT) project was launched on 28 August in two specially equipped Tokyo cafés by backers Nippon Ericsson, the Marubeni Group and PDA manufacturer Handspring.

Yasuhito Hara, a spokesman for Nippon Ericsson, claimed it is now possible for anybody to walk in off the streets and access the Bluetooth network, as long as they have registered their Bluetooth device. Users without Bluetooth devices can borrow one of a handful of PDAs available in the café.

Once online, users can access the Internet as well as browse a selection of content relevant to the local area and content provided for the trial. They can choose from Casio or Compaq devices using Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system. Devices from trial backer Handspring are not yet available.

But network problems began to surface on the first day of the launch.

"Bluetooth usually has a useful range of around 10 metres," said Hara. "However, because of the pillars and people in the café we are getting shorter range." To ensure successful operation, café staff equipped with coverage maps guided users to tables within range of a Bluetooth access point.

Another problem was data throughput. In theory, Bluetooth has a maximum of 768kbps per device, and engineers hoped to achieve between 600kbps and 700kbps in the trial. But in practice, the data rates proved to be much slower.

"With a notebook computer we can get between 200kbps and 300kbps," said Junji Shibata, a solution manager at Nippon Ericsson's business development team. "But with the Pocket PC we cannot get so much because it does not have much CPU power, so we are getting just under 100kbps."

The trials will continue for three months, with more planned at a Tokyo electronics store from the end of September and on one of Japan's high-speed bullet trains in November. The bullet train trial will not offer Internet access but will allow users to browse content stored on an in-train server.

Hara commented that Nippon Ericsson is studying users' browsing habits during the trial so that they can devise a business model for commercial content provision.

He dismissed the suggestion that the 802.11b wireless protocol, currently deployed by Starbucks in some of its US coffee shops, is better suited for such networks.

"With a wireless LAN you can get a much better connection, but it consumes a lot of power," he said. "Our concept is much broader and not simply meant as a replacement for a wired LAN. It also takes in mobile terminals and is much more advanced than 11b. Bluetooth also allows information to be pushed to devices.

"You could have, for example, people walking into an airport and up-to-date flight information being delivered to their PDAs automatically."

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