Bob's Byte: No Roam, No Way
By Bob Emmerson, Wed Aug 30 00:00:00 GMT 2000

We take GSM roaming for granted, but establishing all those voice agreements didn't happen overnight. However, that's exactly what the market expects from GPRS: global roaming from day one!

Do the sums.

Ten operators start making one-to-one roaming agreements. What's the total? Answer: 45. If there are 100 hundred operators the figure goes up to 4.950; when you have 400 operators it's 79.800; and if you factor in ISPs the figure is out of sight.

There's no way that this process is going to work for GPRS or 3G. When subscribers ante up for the new devices they will expect global roaming to be in place. Anything less will be a disaster waiting to happen. The media - particularly the US media - will jump all over this one. PC magazines that fail to realise the true purpose and potential of this enabling standard have already trashed WAP. In addition, incompatibility between different browser technologies is waiting in the wings; and as pointed out in the last Viewpoint, rates are going to be disappointing.

So what is happening on the roaming front? Is a disaster looming or will everything be alright on the night? Right now the answer is not clear, but the signs are positive.

Complex Issues

The GSM Association (GSMA) is "evaluating international IP carriers which are planning to provide GPRS Roaming Exchange (GRX) services." The first round involved proposals, questionnaires, etc. and the results (for GSMA members only) were published on August 23 and some 19 operators have indicated that they are interested in running a GRX network.

However, a lot of complex issues have to be resolved since it is not easy to integrate the wireless world of GSM with the wired world of the Internet.

GPRS is an IP-based, data packet network that overlays GSM and connects to the Internet and intranets. Initially, these networks will be launched as islands and the operators will focus on implementation, testing, marketing, customer care, billing, etc. Roaming is set to follow in late 2000 and early 2001 and the GSMA expects international data traffic to surpass that of voice. This should happen around 2003, when there will be over 90 million users of this service.

So far so good: that indicates that the money is there and that always helps.

Voice roaming uses the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). Data roaming will be done over an IP backbone network and the relevant carrier will have to provide a number of services that comply with GSMA guidelines. These include: reliable, secure connections; IP addresses; IP routing information; root domain names and a database on connected operators.

Who is going to do it?

That's the $64K question. Whoever it is has to have extensive experience of both wireless and IP networks. They also have to own or be able to manage (end-to-end) a global network. That's a tall order, but one that Sonera can handle and this carrier seems to be in pole position at the moment.

Sonera is one of three international IP carriers recommended by the GSM Alliance, which is a group of North American GSM operators. The Finnish carrier has been running a GRX pilot since May and connections to this facility were made available to GPRS operators both in and outside Finland in order to conduct interoperability tests. Sonera is also saying that they invented the concept and are well ahead on the piloting front, a claim that cannot be made by the 19 new arrivals at the GRX ball.

The most likely roaming scenario will be a few large international exchanges linked to others via gateways. There are analogies here to the way voice over IP traffic is handled by different carriers and commercial Internet exchanges (CIX).

What's in it for the GRX carrier?

In a word: money. The exchange carrier will levy charges based on the amount of traffic passed between the many different GPRS operators. The actual tariffs have not been decided and are unlikely to be published, but the return could and should add up to big bucks.

GSM voice roaming was worth Euro 15 billion in 1999 and data is set to overtake voice by 2003. After that comes 3G, which will involve all traffic - voice as well as data - going over IP backbones and via a GRX. Those bucks are likely to be enormous: just look at the money being paid for licences.

Sonera has had a number of "serious merger talks" and is currently being linked with Spain's Telefonica as well as Orange, now owned by France Telecom. The carrier is also part of a consortium that won a 3G licence in Germany.

That licence is very attractive to other carriers, so a deal looks likely later this year. However, could it be that GRX is the financial icing on the cake?

Make that a very big cake.

Bob's Byte is a regular column on TheFeature. Bob Emmerson observes and writes on the wireless industry from his home in The Netherlands.