Roaming limits stall expansion of GPRS

The use of GPRS wireless data technology as a credible business tool was dealt another blow this week as it emerged that users...

The use of GPRS wireless data technology as a credible business tool was dealt another blow this week as it emerged that users will not be able to roam across networks until at least next year.

Even the most advanced operators have only announced a handful of agreements with their overseas counterparts. It could take years for operators to replicate the more than 300 roaming deals that make real roaming through the GSM world a reality.

Businesses hoping to provide mobile workers with data services or connections to company intranets across Europe will have to wait until the telecoms industry has agreed roaming deals.

"There will be more agreements this year," said Sarah Randall, a mobile communications analyst at Gartner, "But we are not expecting much in terms of real roaming until next year. It's quite a big issue for GPRS services.

"[Operators] don't see roaming as an issue," although it will be a feature that companies need to buy into GPRS services, she said.

Each roaming deal needs to be revisited to negotiate the price and discuss interoperability of systems. GPRS calls are charged per megabyte of data, while GSM charges are on time and length of call.

The lack of progress has been frustrating for companies such as O2. The company, formerly BT Cellnet, is keen to push the adoption of GPRS. It believes the absence of roaming has held up adoption by the high-value business sector and contributed the low adoption figures for GPRS as a whole.

"High-value users want international usage," said Neil Harper, head of outbound roaming at O2.

Businesses must be cautious about GPRS until they can be certain about the pricing and availability of services, he said. Without roaming it is difficult for suppliers to push the advantages of the technology to businesses.

O2 has offered GPRS services in the UK since the beginning of 2001, but has only been able to launch overseas roaming services this year.

Harper is aiming to have 20 operators signed up by September this year and 70 or 80 by September 2003. Priority will be given to countries that business users are most likely to visit.

Vodafone has announced three agreements outside its own group. T-mobile has announced none, but expects to confirm the first this year.

"This is a marathon not a sprint," said a spokeswoman from T-Mobile. The company's plans would be "very aggressive", she said.

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