Orange drip-feeds GPRS

After months of confusion, Orange lets some consumers access some GPRS services, but won't officially launch the service until April 2002

Some Orange subscribers now have the chance to upgrade to a GPRS package, but the company isn't planning a full launch of the service until sometime next year.

After carrying out several months of trials, Orange began letting customers onto its GPRS network on Thursday. Orange customers who use certain talk plans can now sign up for the service, but business users cannot subscribe until the full launch.

In June, Orange told ZDNet UK that it hoped to launch GPRS by the end of the third quarter of 2001. But subscribers have been given conflicting information when they spoke to customer services. Some had been promised that the service would launch this year -- while others were told they would have to wait until 2002. The word now is that April 2002 is the date.

Thursday's news means that users who are desperate for a always-on connection that will let them access WAP pages faster can get onto GPRS now, while business users -- and those who want to be able to access the wider Internet -- will have to wait.

GPRS means that a phone can be constantly connected to the Internet, and according to Orange it will provide date transfer speeds of "between 30 and 40 kbps" -- a significant improvement on the 9kbps offered by a GSM connection. Orange is committed to launching several GPRS handsets in the coming weeks.

Orange talk plans that will support GPRS from today include the Talk 60 and Talk 150 packages. A range of different tariffs is available. The lowest tariff is £4 per month for up to 0.5MB of data, while a user who expects to do a lot of surfing might choose to pay £40 per month for up to 25MB of data.

Any user signing up now, though, will only be able to access WAP pages via their GPRS handset -- which is one reason for Orange's low-key approach. "When the full service is launched next year, users will be able to access the Internet," said a company spokesman, explaining that GPRS phones could then be used by customers to connect their notebook PCs to the Internet and view HTML pages.

Orange customers have been able to buy the Motorola v66 GPRS-enabled handset for a few weeks already, and more models should arrive soon. "We're launching the Trium Mondo very soon, and are also planning to offer Ericsson's T68 before Christmas. As well as having a colour screen, the T68 will support HSCSD as well as GPRS," said the Orange spokesman.

Orange launched its High Speed Circuit-Switched Data (HSCSD) network in August 2000: like GPRS, it offers faster data speeds than a basic GSM connection.

Rival network operators Vodafone and mmO2 (formerly BT Cellnet) both launched commercial GPRS services this summer, but Orange has denied in the past that it has missed a trick by launching later -- claiming that its HSCSD network meant it didn't need to rush into GPRS before it was ready.

See the Mobile Technology News Section for full coverage.

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