WAP makes resurgence

WAP may seem very last century to many, but better handsets and more attractive services are driving higher Internet traffic on mobile phones

Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) may have been declared dead on arrival, but the technology is now experiencing a renaissance, largely driven by WAP sites offering customised phone ringtones, according to figures released this week by the Mobile Data Association (MDA).

The number of WAP pages viewed in the UK for November hit 947 million, up from October's 897 million, and significantly ahead of industry expectations. The MDA had projected that the UK would hit eight billion WAP page impressions for 2003, but with November's figures, the total already stands at 8.2 billion.

A page impression is defined as a WAP Markup Language (WML) file, or combination of files, sent to a valid user as a result of that user's request. The figures come from UK GSM operators O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone.

WAP debuted to great fanfare in the late 1990s, but at the time most handsets had black and white displays and relied on dial-up connections for data transfer, making Internet-based services slow, expensive and difficult to use.

The wide availability now of colour screens, better user interfaces and faster data connections is now encouraging mobile users to log on, if only to download ringtones, according to the MDA. Ringtones based on pop songs are the main driver of WAP traffic, with top tunes for November including The Black-Eyed Peas' "Where is the Love?", Kevin Lyttle's "Turn Me On" and Fatman Scoop's "Be Faithful". Many higher-end handsets can now also read standard HTML Web pages, but the majority of phones can only access the Internet via WAP.

The rise in traffic is good news for mobile operators, who earn revenues from download fees, and may also mean opportunities for content providers. However, WAP remains a far cry from the popularity of the most successful mobile Internet platform, NTT DoCoMo, which reached 40 million subscribers in October.

WAP is also far less popular than the main carrier of data traffic on UK mobile networks -- text messaging. Person-to-person text messages reached an average of 59 million per day in November, jumping to 76 million on the day of the Rugby World Cup final on 22 November, and hitting 111 million on New Year's Eve. The total for the month of November was 1.7 billion.

Infrastructure provider Sicap noted earlier this week that operators are having trouble coping with peak levels of text-message demand, with some New Year's Eve messages delayed up to four hours or lost entirely.