Dozens of GSM operators around the world have upgraded, or are about to upgrade, their GSM networks to enable persistent data services, based on the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). But be warned. Despite mobile operators calling GPRS the mobile Internet, the way they've priced it and the speed of throughput make clear it's not. Not unless you like your Web through a straw and paying for it through the nose.
"GPRS is frequently dubbed the Mobile Internet," says Georges Schlegel, Swisscom's Head of Value Added and Portal Services. "That terminology delivers the wrong message to subscribers in our markets who are used to accessing the Internet via a full-screen, powerful PC. Better to call it personal mobile services."
The tariffs are based on volume, which is new for the GSM world. But the price per kilobyte of data is high. An analysis of the current tariffs posted by GPRS mobile operators, such as Smartone, SingTel, Microcell, T-mobil, D2, E-Plus, Diax, One, and Mobilkom, make it clear that these mobile operators want subscribers to use GPRS to access WML pages, email, and similar applications. Not for full Web access.
Such tariffs make GPRS attractive only to those who generate small amounts of bursty traffic. The classic example here is financial quotes, or ticker information. Email alerts, paging, and access to WML pages, could also qualify as bursty, but surfing graphics-rich web pages and downloading the occasional MP3 or pdf file do not.
"If you are expecting to use GPRS for a faster link to your corporate data. Forget it. It doesn't make sense at these prices," says an executive from a Canadian mobile application development firm.
But don't mistake the criticism for failure and this research does not suggest that GPRS is a flop. It is fine for accessing WAP content, a vast improvement over current methods which involve long call set up times for WAP sessions, airtime based tariffs, and data throughput of 9.6 kbps.
There are happy GPRS users out there who are content with WML, web clipping pages, or email. Physical convenience is key, carrying only a palmtop computer instead of a Notebook on vacation or on the train to get email. They can now do what Nokia Communicator users have been doing for ages, discreetly emailing while in a boring meeting.
Microcell, and a few other mobile operators, have enabled some customer self-service features on their WAP portals such as online content configuration and billing, as well as standard portal fare such as calendar and address book updates. GPRS improves the WAP portal experience.
The tariff tells all
Early adopters of GPRS like being "always on" and also like the tariffs based on volume, not airtime. Take T-Mobil's GPRS tariff for example. It costs 10 Euros a month for one Meg of data transfers, equal to 500 text messages or 750 WAP pages. That's a lot of WAP for the money. But it's not a lot of Web.
SingTel's tariffs are similar. SingTel is one of a handful of operators offering both new GSM data services, the high-speed circuit switched (HSCSD) and GPRS. It doesn't come right out and say that GPRS is for WAP only (at least not in its English documentation), but once you plow through the tariff tables you discover that for downloading and real Web surfing, HSCSD is priced more suitably. For WAP, text messaging, and email, the GPRS is best.
"GPRS is far too expensive to use as an Internet access tool," says a report from Stiftung Warentest in Berlin, an independent German consumer research agency. (For an in-depth look at European GPRS tariffs see this article by Joachim Bamrud.)
If the tariffs are not enough to convince subscribers that GPRS is a WAP access network, the words bandied about by operators to market GPRS will. T-mobil calls its GPRS service "ECO WAP" and "PRO WAP", for example.
Hong Kong's Smartone advertises GPRS as the best way to access its WAP portal, called WOW! Australia's Telstra says GPRS is "the new way to access WAP". Canadian GSM operator, Microcell says GPRS enables, " all users to navigate the Web using their WAP-enabled handset."
D2 the German subsidiary of Vodafone leaves no room for equivocation, saying that it hopes that GPRS will boost WAP use by it 21 million subscribers. D2 says that only about one million WAP-pages a day were served last month. D2 expects GPRS to boost that usage figure significantly.
GPRS might one day become the mobile Internet, when the price per kilobyte drops and when it overcomes the speed bumps. Data throughput speeds of 14.4 to 28.8 kbps are just too slow for access to the media-rich Web we all know and use today.
Not that there is anything wrong with making WAP content more accessible to mobile users. Arne Hess, a mobile communications consultant and editor of unwired-i.net, points out that there are a number of areas where WAP beats the Web for wireless networks, such as its ability to deliver push services. Location based services are better with WAP and WML pages are optimized for the reduced screen and limited input capacity of mobile phones and handhelds. (Although it should be said there are still some interoperability issues here to overcome.)
But surely, mobile network operators have not invested an average of 100 to 200 million dollars (the cost of an network upgrade) in equipment to enable a service that simply makes WAP cheaper for the masses?
Well actually, the answer is yes they did spend 100 million each to make WAP more accessible, for a couple of reasons.
One reason is that the billing systems used by operators are not yet ready to make it easy to offer two separate prices for mobile Internet access, one for WAP and one for HTTP based Web pages. "Operators apply their billing rates to statistics about Access Point Nodes (APN). In current GPRS rollouts, the same APN is used to enable access to WAP and the Web. That means one kind of data record. With only one kind of data record for rating (set of tariffs and parameters), operators have to choose to make this attractive to WAP or Web users," explains Hess.
The other reason is financial. WAP lets the mobile operator control both access and content to a much greater degree than merely providing access to the wide-open Web does. "The mobile operator can expand the value chain, which is important in light of future 3G business cases," says Hess. Such a business model means greater revenues per user, plus it enables telcos to be valued more like an AOL than like a Worldcom/UUNET, for example.
Application developers interviewed by TheFeature are very keen on flat rates and unlimited access pricing schemes. But don't hold your breath. If you look at the fixed network, flat rate unlimited Internet access came very recently and it was the cable network operators that brought it to the masses first, not the telcos.
"It's an experimental time. New prices and tariffs schemes will emerge over the next few months," says a Siemens mobile communications equipment spokesperson.
The speed bump and a few other bumpy bits
Not only the tariff structure discourages using GPRS for Web access but so does the speed. A number of operators are aiming to boost the speed of access on the existing infrastructure have signed up with BlueKite, a maker of a suite of bandwidth optimization software tools, including compression software packages (server side only), intelligent caching (client/server) and adaptive transport protocols. According to BlueKite's European Managing Director, its software can increase GPRS speed fivefold.
BlueKite's customers include Dutch mobile operator Telfort, BT Cellnet in the UK, Iceland's TAL, Austria's One and Swisscom.
Swisscom has not yet launched GPRS to the public not because of the speed bumps but because its strategy is to build up a number advanced applications and value added services for business and consumer subscribers before launch. It is one of a growing number of operators that are working with equipment manufacturers to boost application development. For example, they have created the Mobile Application Initiative.
"We're aiming for the SMS effect and not the WAP effect," says Swisscom's GPRS project manager, Gianpaolo Cecchin, referring to the over hyped launch of WAP, which lead to disappointment in most markets across Europe. Although he might want to watch out using the term "SMS effect". It took eight years for the SMS effect to reach today's high level of use.
Expect discounts for corporate email and Intranet access, voice/data bundles, and international roaming, along with other corporate mobile computing applications in vertical and horizontal markets later this year. Such developments are not much more than press announcements so far.
One of the foundations of good corporate applications is the need to roam with data, as well as voice. The road warrior needs his or her email when they travel from Stockholm to Berlin to London to Sofia Antipolis. It's a hurdle that is being overcome as this is being written, with trials and early agreements in certain regions such as Austria and Germany, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Swiss startup, Comfone, based in Berne, aims to relieve operators of having to create an agreement and supporting network infrastructure underlying every GPRS roaming partner relationship by creating a global network for operators to tap into called the GPRS Roaming Exchange (GRX).
One last research note. Early adopters of mobile data services on GSM networks who seem most satisfied are those who are not using a WAP phone, they are using a PocketPC or Palm device. "Mobile phones are not well adapted to the new service. The displays are too small. Frankly, I am waiting for a Compaq iPAQ equipped with a GPRS card. That is much more attractive to us as a content provider," says Rene Lutz, of Distefora Mobile AG
"GPRS is data and only data - not voice!" asserts Hess. "It doesn't make sense for us to use a GPRS mobile phone (with a support of max 3 + 1 channels only) as a mobile modem for a Notebook. More PCMCIA cards for Notebooks are required, especially ones that can support 56 kbps download and 25 kbps upload (4 + 2 channels)."
These comments suggest that the first vendors who can get GPRS PCMCIA cards onto the market will be getting into a very hot niche market.
The GPRS rollouts on the whole are exciting for both users and mobile operators. The emergence of GPRS is really the herald of the PC computing world into the mobile world. It means the end of the dominance of the telefoninos and the handies. In the near future, we will see a much wider range of terminals in the mobile world.
Valerie Thompson is a freelance business and technology journalist, specialized in emerging networking and computing topics. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland.