Time for GPRS to look beyond WAP

GPRS wireless services require new applications that will expand their functionality, believes Bill Pechey

A lot has happened to wireless General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) since I first wrote about it eight months ago (see Gearing up for GPRS, 2 October 2000), and faster mobile data services are developing apace. Vodafone and BT Cellnet have both announced GPRS services for personal users in addition to those for corporates, and Orange and One 2 One are not far behind.

Hardly a week goes by without the announcement of a new GPRS mobile handset, although only the Timeport 260 from Motorola is currently available in significant numbers in the UK.

Recent tests have demonstrated downstream data speeds of up to 40kbit/s using three of the eight available GPRS time slots. Obviously, this performance is not guaranteed and service will usually be slower, depending on how much of the available bandwidth is used by voice calls. Throughputs have not been as high as was hoped, largely because the operators have chosen only to implement coding schemes 3 and 4, which limit throughput to 14.05kbit/s per time slot rather than the 21kbit/s that could be achieved with coding scheme 1.

This is understandable because an upgrade of network bandwidth would be necessary to achieve the higher speed ­ current networks can only carry 16kbit/s per time slot. So as GPRS use increases, let's hope the operators make the investment. When Edge (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution) is implemented, the operators will have to upgrade anyway.

All the GPRS service tariffs announced so far offer a certain number of megabytes for a fixed monthly fee ­ above that threshold, each additional megabyte is charged at a higher rate. Some corporations have asked for truly unlimited tariffs so that they have better control of costs, but so far none of the mobile operators has obliged.

Of course, no service can be successful without applications that make use of it. The most obvious, and available, application to anyone who buys a GPRS mobile is WAP via GPRS. The performance is generally much better than that of previous technologies and the always-on links should make WAP more usable and popular.

But what about other GPRS applications? Orange and BT Cellnet have set up developers' forums, which have grown rapidly and now have hundreds of member companies. These activities should ensure that plenty of software becomes available. Many applications are still under wraps, but it is clear that there will be products to make it easier to connect to office services such as email and intranet databases. It also looks as though these applications will become available for many platforms, including Symbian's Epoc, Palm and Pocket PC.

There is a lot of interest in making applications that provide services tailored to the location of users, although privacy issues in allowing third-party access to location data may be difficult to resolve. Nevertheless, a GPS satellite navigation receiver now only takes up about one square inch of space and can be integrated into mobile terminals quite easily, providing an alternative means of getting location data.

The fact that GPRS provides a permanent connection means that it is ideally suited for mobile data systems and will result in benefits in performance and costs. Remember that, even at today's somewhat high tariffs, GPRS is thousands of times cheaper per byte than SMS and its cost can be justified for quite low volumes of data. Unlike SMS, GPRS-based applications control the link and can avoid duplicate transmissions and other performance problems.

I think I'll be writing a lot more about GPRS in the coming months as we see whether users like the tariffs and applications.

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