Gearing up for GPRS

Despite its teething problems, General Packet Radio Service is very fast and will make a huge difference to smaller firms with remote users, says Bill Pechey

All of the UK's GSM networks will be introducing General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) over the next six months. GPRS provides users with an always-on, Internet Protocol (IP) connection at a speed of tens of kilobits per second over the normal GSM coverage area. The connection can be to the Internet via an ISP or to some other destination such as a corporate network.

The great news about GPRS is that it will be charged at either a flat rate or by volume. This is much better than paying for time spent online, and means that corporates with employees on the road could find GPRS an irresistible attraction.

Notebook computers can be set up so that they work just the same when connected via GPRS as they do back home on the office LAN; the only difference is the speed.

IT managers will find many benefits, such as better cost control, easier support and better communication with people in the field. The mobile user will still feel a part of the company even when far away from the office.

One drawback of GPRS is that the throughput varies with network loading. That said, this is unlikely to be a significant problem, because many network services, such as email delivery and file copying, can be drip-fed with little inconvenience to the user.

Another disadvantage is that it may be a year or two before international GPRS roaming is available, so ask the network operators for firm dates and tariffs before committing to any service outside the UK.

By far the biggest issue for many corporates will be security. Like GSM, GPRS radio links will be encrypted so eavesdropping is unlikely to be a problem. The real danger is the possibility of attacks from other GPRS users. The option of a direct connection to the corporate network avoids all contact with the Internet but the GPRS network uses IP to carry internal traffic, and operators will have to convince us all about its security. So think about using encryption right from the start.

GPRS can link small, remote offices to the corporate network as long as the traffic is not too great. Look out for new products to make this easy and efficient. Communications for temporary offices can be set up at very short notice with GPRS ­ there's no need to order fixed data circuits, just connect up the kit and switch on.

In this case, it may make sense to use a GPRS Internet connection with secure virtual private network (VPN) software rather than pay for a dedicated connection to the GPRS network.

Very few tariffs for GPRS have yet been announced, but the indications are that they will be similar to those of other always-on IP services.

GPRS offers even more ways of charging than GSM, so watch out for creative and confusing schemes. Despite potential pitfalls, GPRS will quickly eclipse GSM in popularity among corporate users.

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