Pay-as-you-surf WAP arrives, Cellnet steals a first

It's pay as you go day for mobile Internet users

WAP finally went mass market Monday, with the launch of the UK's first pre-pay handset.

From Monday, consumers will be able to access the Internet for a fraction of the cost of a PC, via a £99.99 mobile phone from BT Cellnet.

Cellnet's pre-pay WAP package is available via Mitsubishi's Geo-@ handset. "This is the turning point for mobile Internet," says BT Cellnet managing director Peter Erskine, "It happens now. Users will finally be able to access the Internet for a tenth of the cost of a PC." But while users will save on the cost of a PC, surfing the Net using a mobile does not come cheap: all WAP calls will be charged at a flat rate of 10p per minute, with voice calls costing 30p per minute peak and 5p per minute off-peak.

WAP or Wireless Application Protocol, has until recently, had a troubled history for one so young. Although Orange launched its portfolio of WAP services back in November, it was unable to source supplies of suitable handsets. Cellnet labelled Orange's offering a failure. Cellnet claims it offered the UK's first WAP service when it launched in January.

However with Ericsson, Motorola and Mitsubishi joining WAP pioneer Nokia in producing handsets, the hardware problems that have dogged the technology seem under control.

The launch of a pre-pay offering is the final piece in the jigsaw of mass market acceptance of WAP. Pre-pay tariffs have largely been responsible for driving the phenomenal explosion in mobile phone ownership in the UK. IDC senior analyst Tim Sheedy believes that a pre-pay WAP tariff is "crucial for driving for WAP into the mass market."

Currently there are 26 million mobile phone users in the UK, IDC expects to see around 8.5 million new mobile users in the UK by 2001. Of these, the analyst firm reckons 1.2 million will be WAP enabled. Although it has not finalised its predictions for pre-pay versus contract packages, senior analyst Tim Sheedy points out that "in the UK all the growth in the mobile market is coming from pre-pay, it's in the realm of 80 percent of all new users."

He points to the massive uptake of SMS text messaging among young people as suggesting the appeal of WAP to young people. This is a view supported by Rory Maguire, Orange manager [WAP] content services, who reckons WAP phones as becoming "the next must-have playground accessory".

Cellnet is ready and willing to cash in on this receptive audience which IDC predicts will be worth $171m in call revenue by 2001. Cellnet is going live with a £20m advertising campaign to get young consumers hooked on the joys of pre-pay WAP. As an additional sweetener, for the first three months subscribers will get an extra 200 free minutes of Internet calls.

Sheedy believes that the other major UK operators will quickly follow Cellnet's lead in introducing pre-pay services, although it is likely to gain a head start. "BT has been saying it's bought up half the world's supply of WAP phones," he says, "Although most of the major manufacturers have said they'll have pre-pay phones by the second half of the year."

Guy Kewney predicts WAP rage. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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