GSM operators roam further afield in Rome

Network operators from around the world have been making roaming agreements and welcoming new members at the "Roamfest", a...

Network operators from around the world have been making roaming agreements and welcoming new members at the "Roamfest", a plenary meeting of the GSM Association in Rome.

Representatives from around 80 operators of GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) networks are taking part in the meeting, set up to speed the formation of bilateral roaming agreements between operators. The early signs are that it the meeting has been a success.

Roaming - where subscribers to one mobile phone network are able to use their phones on another operator's network in different country or region - is top of the agenda at the meeting, which ends today. Although subscribers can already use the same GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phone in almost any country in the world, users of GPRS data services do not fare as well.

"Roaming is the cornerstone of GSM. We want to make sure that it extends to the data world, we want to ensure GPRS roaming is available worldwide," said Rob Conway, the chief executive officer of the GSM Association.

GPRS packet data services run at up to 112Kbps - not as fast as the third- generation services appearing on the market in some countries, but faster than the circuit-switched data calls carried by second-generation, digital cell phones in use today, leading to GPRS's "2.5G" nickname.

So far, GPRS users have few choices. Vodafone, for instance, has roaming agreements with operators in just 16 countries. If GPRS roaming were as advanced as GSM, Vodafone could have agreements with at least 75 of the 110 commercially operating GPRS networks identified by the GSM Association.

There are two levels at which agreements have to be reached in order to enable GPRS users to roam from one network to another.

On the one hand, data traffic must be exchanged. While setting up bilateral agreements with other operators to exchange traffic is possible, operators are choosing to do this through GRXs (GPRS Roaming Exchanges), companies that act as clearing houses for traffic, allowing them to concentrate roaming traffic to all these other operators into one backbone network.

On the other hand, there's the business relationship with the other operator, and that still has to be tackled through many bilateral agreements, Hoffman said. Speeding up the negotiation of those deals is what the GSM Association set out to solve with the Roamfest.

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