Vodafone launches international WAP trial

Business-oriented testing could be a prelude to impressive consumer wireless services

Vodafone AirTouch (quote: VOD) this week launched a pilot program designed to show off the company's international reach and its commitment to wireless application protocol (WAP). The company launched what it touts as the first international WAP trial, in conjunction with financial consultants Ernst & Young.

WAP, and its successor Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), are expected to bring videoconferencing, Web surfing, music and video to mobile phones. They are seen as ultimately replacing today's consumer wireless handsets, but will first be aimed at businesses.

Last week Vodafone clinched the rights to one of the UK's UMTS licences, for what experts are calling a dangerously high figure -- £5.96bn. Industry analysts have voiced some doubt about whether next-generation wireless gadgets will catch on, making companies such as Vodafone, Orange and British Telecom (quote: BT) anxious to demonstrate how useful an Internet-connected handset can be.

The trial will span locations in the UK, the Netherlands and the US; 10 Ernst & Young staff from each of the locations will be outfitted with a WAP phone linked to an Ernst & Young content server via a Vodafone WAP gateway. The idea is that employees will be able to access important data -- including Lotus Notes documents, personal calendar, contact database and email functions -- anytime, anywhere.

"The ability to remotely and simply access our office systems is a crucial requirement for many of our staff, and with this pilot we will now be able to test this using the WAP handsets which could eventually enable us to provide an even better service for our customers," said Bill Egan, responsible for Ernst & Young's global telephony services, in a prepared statement.

Vodafone said the trial is intended to show how multinational companies can benefit from its wireless Internet services. "This is the world's first global WAP service and marks another significant step towards Vodafone AirTouch's aim of becoming the world's leading mobile multimedia company," said Jeremy Forword, Vodafone AirTouch Global Commercial Director, in a statement. Vodafone did not return several requests for further comment as of press time.

Vodafone is the world's largest telecommunications company, with operations in 25 countries after its planned acquisition of Germany's Mannesmann, and a customer base of more than 39 million. Ernst & Young operates in more than 135 countries and has a worldwide staff of more than 95,000.

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