Vodafone first to gamble on GPRS

Vodafone will become the first UK mobile operator to launch General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) commercially.

Vodafone will become the first UK mobile operator to launch General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) commercially when it offers the next-generation mobile data network to corporate customers next month.

The telecoms giant will promote its GPRS-based Remote Access service as a platform for a variety of e-business functions, such as access to product databases, job scheduling and e-mail.

GPRS has been eagerly awaited as a faster and more efficient way to access mobile data, offering speeds comparable with those of domestic modems working on fixed lines.

It is also a potential saviour of Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), the mobile-internet platform that has suffered badly from the slow delivery of existing GSM mobile networks.

However, GPRS’s development has been slower than hoped for as handset manufacturers grappled with the technical difficulties of producing handsets at commercially realistic prices.

It has also been overshadowed by the bad publicity surrounding WAP, raising doubts over the willingness of businesses and consumers to invest in another interim technology ahead of the arrival of ultra-fast, third-generation mobile networks.

Vodafone’s first UK GPRS phone will be the Motorola T260, which is expected to cost around £100. More GPRS-enabled handsets and personal digital assistants will be rolled out during the next few months.

The technology allows users to connect remotely to the internet, or their own company’s local area network, via the existing network of mobile base stations.Connection can be by mobile phone, or via a handheld or laptop PC equipped with suitable software — for example Internet Explorer or Lotus Notes.

Vodafone said as an ‘always on’ technology it allows users to send and receive data without having to log-on to their network each time. The company will launch a series of GPRS tariffs for business customers on April 2, although the service will not be available to domestic consumers until later in the year. Price plans will run separately from Vodafone’s existing GSM voice tariffs, and start from £15 per month.

Unlike voice — which is charged per second — GPRS will be billed according to the volume of data sent and received. Tariffs include a certain amount of free data, with traffic over and above this charged per megabyte.

The other big players in the UK mobile market are poised to launch their own GPRS services for corporate customers soon.

One2One recently completed trials of a range of corporate GPRS applications with the mobile internet specialist Logica.

BT Cellnet, number two in the UK, is developing remote access facilities via GPRS to core enterprise software such as SAP.

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