Consumer GPRS: right here, right now, quite slow

BT Cellnet rolls out the UK's first always-on mobile phone service for consumers -- but it won't be quite as fast as the hype suggested

Mobile phone users will finally be able to get a taste of high-speed Internet access when on the move, with the launch of BT Cellnet's consumer GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) service today. However, the service falls short of the expansive claims made for GPRS in the past, and it will only work with GPRS-enabled phones.

The new service will allow "always-on" access to the Internet that will be between two and three times faster than today's GSM phones. This should make surfing the Internet from a mobile a better experience for users -- with fewer of the frustrating delays associated with accessing WAP pages.

Mobile companies hope that GPRS will encourage users to use their phones for more than just conversation, helping to build a market for the third-generation (3G) services that are expected to roll out by 2004. "With GPRS the mobile internet has become faster, cheaper and more accessible," said Stuart Newstead, BT Cellnet's general manager, wireless data.

Users will be able to join the service at local BT Cellnet shops and branches of Carphone Warehouse and The Link.

BT Cellnet is only offering the Motorola Timeport 260 handset initially --- making it a strong candidate for the "mystery buyer" of 500,000 Timeport 260's announced by Motorola at the CeBIT trade show in March. The Timeport 260 will cost £200.

There are two different pricing structures. People can choose to either pay £3.99 per month plus a further £20 for every MB of data downloaded, or £7.99 per month (including one MB of downloaded data) plus £3.99 for every additional MB.

However, with download speeds of between 20kbps and 30kbps, BT Cellnet's new service falls short of what the mobile operators and manufacturers were promising until recently. Last summer there was talk of "maximum download rates in excess of 170kbps", and the first GPRS phones were expected to have 52.2kbit/s download speeds. It is hoped that other technological breakthroughs, such as Edge, will boost GPRS speeds in the future.

BT Cellnet has been running a GPRS service for business users since June 2000. Rivals Orange and Vodafone are both expected to follow BT Cellnet by launching their own consumer GPRS services soon.