Last month saw BT Cellnet's launch of the world's first GPRS service, the beginning of a wireless technology that is expected to revolutionise the way people think about and use the Internet. Most of the major wireless carriers in the UK will be quick to follow suit, and GPRS will soon be available to consumers on standard GSM handsets.
GPRS, or General Packet Radio Service, is a way of giving devices such as handhelds, mobile phones or laptop computers an "always on" connection to a network -- they can access the Internet or a corporate intranet, for example, without first having to dial up a connection.
The main advantages are speed, cheapness and convenience. The first wave of GPRS devices will deliver a realistic speed of around 20 kbit/s, similar to dial-up modem speeds, but far faster than the typical 9.6 kbit/s available if you make a data connection through your mobile phone. The system will ultimately get to speeds of up to ten times as fast as current GSM networks.
Unlike the standard GSM network, which has to create a dedicated connection whenever you want to exchange data, GPRS sends bits of data only when needed. The result is a much cheaper, much more efficient way of exchanging data. Since GPRS uses existing mobile phone base stations, it is relatively inexpensive for mobile networks to install.
As for convenience, GPRS eliminates the need to dial up a service provider, wait for a connection, exchange data and then log off -- while being charged for your connection time. Since the connection is always on, the handset or terminal can be sending and receiving data even when you're not using it. For corporate users, especially, that means a permanent, mobile connection to all the information on the corporate network.
"Information is always there, always at my fingertips," says BT Cellnet's GPRS program manager, Peter Lisle, who guesses he was the first in the company to find out about the arrest of Tony Blair's son Euan. "It's a completely new experience."
For consumers, GPRS is expected to deliver on all the promises associated with WAP, by eliminating many of WAP's problems.
Mobile network providers are under enormous pressure to successfully roll out GPRS and see it widely adopted, because they have invested huge amounts in technology and licences for third-generation systems, called Universal Mobile Telecommunication System (UMTS). With transmission speeds of up to 2Mbit/s, UMTS will make it practical to introduce applications such as live, two-way video, but only after costly, brand-new networks are built.
UMTS should be available commercially in 2002-3.
Go to the GPRS timeline