UK carriers roll out GPRS

BT Cellnet is already selling GPRS services, and other networks are not far behind

BT Cellnet is the only UK operator to have launched a service so far, though services are on the way from the likes of Orange (quote: ORA), One2One and Vodafone.

Cellnet ran trials of five GPRS services from March to May, after an early 1999 decision to put the technology on the front burner. The service with which it has debuted is PocketNet Office, which connects workers' laptop PCs to the corporate LAN. Wireless coverage is only available in the south of England for now, but will cover all of England by the end of the summer, according to BT (quote: BT).

PocketNet Office users are supplied with a mobile phone handset -- a GPRS-enabled Motorola Timeport, the only handset currently available from Cellnet -- and a cable to connect it to a laptop. Software from BlueKite.com on the laptop uses compression to effectively increase data transmission speeds.

The service costs £45 a month, plus around £199 for the handset and standard charges for voice calls. During a promotional period lasting until the autumn, users have a nominal limit of 50MB per month, but Cellnet will introduce a new tariff structure once it understands how customers use the device, according to GPRS program manager Peter Lisle.

"We want to have a subscription mentality," Lisle says. "If we have to, we will [institute] some delimiting targets. One of those might be a megabyte basis." Another option would be introducing peak and off-peak times for data transmission, he added.

The other applications Cellnet has trialled:

  • A consumer service connecting a WAP device via GPRS

  • A version of PocketNet office that connects to a customer's standard ISP instead of a corporate network

  • A service giving stock traders constant access to market information, using a PDA connected to a GPRS handset

  • A work-management trial connecting field technicians to information about their assignments

Late this year GPRS data cards will be available, eliminating the need for a handset. At the moment GPRS handsets are in short supply -- major makers such as Ericsson and Nokia do not yet have phones on the market -- but supplies should be plentiful by the time Cellnet plans to launch its mass-market consumer service, late this year or early next year.

Orange is putting into place a service called High Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD), which effectively combines the bandwidth of several standard GSM connections to create a fast, circuit-switched link. The service is ready now, according to Orange, and will be rolled out by the end of July, after literature has been printed and technical support staff sufficiently trained.

HSCSD is good for real-time, high-speed applications such as audio or video, and Orange is planning to make the most of it by rolling out a GSM videophone in the fourth quarter.

The company will begin GPRS trials at the beginning of 2001, and will ultimately offer handsets that automatically select a GPRS or HSCSD connection depending on the application.

Vodafone AirTouch (quote: VOD)began upgrading its GSM network to GPRS early this year and began field trials simultaneously in the UK, Greece and the Netherlands in January. A full commercial service is expected by autumn.

One2One is set to begin GPRS field trials in September, with a commercial launch in the business market early next year. In the second quarter, 2001, the company will launch a consumer GPRS service.

One problem that will persist into next year is the question of roaming from network to network when users leave their home coverage area. Compatibility issues exist between the GPRS versions being used in different European countries, but full roaming should be available next year.

Go to GPRS: Next generation mobile system comes to Britain

Go to the GPRS timeline

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.