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GPRS broadband wireless not so fast after all, says Nokia

Press shouldn't have believed claims of 100kbps made by the likes of... er... Nokia

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European operators are scheduled to introduce broadband wireless data services towards the end of this year, but it's beginning to look as if it's not all it's cracked up to be, and that they'll be going rapidly into reverse on the expectation management front. For starters, GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) is going to be a lot slower on the ground than you'd been led to believe, and unless some charitable elves drop off some new battery technology pronto, device endurance won't look too clever either.

Speaking in Helsinki at the end of last week Nokia executives warned that too much has been promised for GPRS and EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution). GPRS is being positioned as a bridge to 3G systems, and has had data rates of in excess of 100kbps claimed for it. By Nokia, among others. EDGE is a little further down the line, is of particular interest to US TDMA operators, and offers even higher speeds. Or it did, anyway - Nokia has claimed "packet data user rates of up to 473kbps."

But Nirvana has been postponed. Although people have been led to believe that GPRS devices will be able to achieve a comfortable equivalent of two ISDN channels while they're on the move, Nokia says bit rates will be deliverable in multiples of 13kbps, and if you allow a maximum of three timeslots you get - with the apparent addition of 4kbps of secret sauce - 43kbps. That of course depends on the network operator being able to deliver you the maximum; we wouldn't be at all surprised if under some conditions you wound up getting 13kbps, dangerously close to the current GSM data rate of 9.6kbps.

The downgrade holds good for EDGE, which has been promised at triple GPRS rates, so that means it will initially roll out at around 120kbps. GPRS is intended to roll out late this year, while the first EDGE systems are expected to launch in 2002.

According to Petri Poyhonen, head of Nokia's GPRS business programme, the press has a responsibility to get the right message across to users, who've been getting the wrong impression about GPRS. No doubt Nokia has a responsibility to go through its Web site and revise down all those recklessly large numbers itself, but Petri didn't mention that.

The real point of GPRS, says Poyhonen, is the permanent connection - and he's not wrong. If you can achieve 43kbps permanently via wireless, or even just 20kbps, in most cases you won't necessarily notice the relatively low speed, because you're not demanding data in heavy bursts, as you would via a dial-up connection.

But the other piece of bad news about GPRS may interfere with your ability to have a permanent connection for any great length of time. Nokia Mobile Phones CTO Yrjo Neuvo vigorously scotches rumours that trial GPRS systems have been bursting into flames (certainly not Nokia ones, he smiles, they're "very cool"), but he does concede that GPRS is a heavy drain on power.

This is something that'll carry over into 3G/UMTS systems, unless manufacturers can deliver substantially better battery life in the interim, but the major issue right now is the likely capability of the GPRS systems that'll have to go into mass production later this year. Neuvo is however optimistic, observing that GPRS will have to have comparable battery performance to existing systems, because customers wouldn't accept any less. Which we presume is where the elves come in... ®

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