BT Cellnet names date for consumer GPRS launch

Motorola handsets play up at demo

BT Cellnet is to launch consumer version of a service which promises high-speed Internet connection over mobile phone on May 18.

GPRS (general packet radio service) phones are designed to offer an "always-on" Internet connection at between two to three times the speed of current mobiles, but a demonstration to the press feel flat this morning which BT techies struggled to get some phones to work.

Earlier adopters of GPRS in the business market have complained about network availability and these same problems seemed to bedevil the launch. Connectivity problems were intermittent and not connected to any particular site or handset, suggesting networking teething troubles.

That said, Cellnet is pioneering the way in becoming the first British operator to launch a consumer GPRS service and it will need to make the service robust before launch - or else run the risk of customer backlash.

Cellnet's services will launch with two tariffs and is initially available only on Motorola's Timeport 260 handset, which will cost customers £199. It will be offered from branches of the Carphone Warehouse, The Link and BT Cellnet stores from May 18.

Users will be offered the options paying a monthly subscription of £3.99 and then 2p for each kilobyte of data (the equivalent of a typical WAP page) downloaded; or paying £7.99 a month covering the first megabyte of data, and a further £3.99 per megabyte.

The GPRS monthly subscription, which is been positioned towards heavy users, does not include voice calls and is charged in addition to regular monthly tariffs.

Stuart Newstead, general manager of BT Cellnet's wireless data services, declined to say how many phones BT expected to sell, or how many mobiles were available to it from Motorola.

Cellnet was keen at the launch to stress that GPRS offers the chance of giving users a more reliable and richer user experience in viewing WAP pages than current circuit-switched networks allow.

It also downplayed concerns over costs by pointing that users connected through a packet-switched GPRS network will pay only for data downloaded and sent, not for time spent online.

GPRS is seen by the industry as a stepping-stone to 3G mobiles (which require a far more extensive network upgrade).

Newstead predicted that GPRS will have a "long shelf-life" that will extended into the eventual launch of 3G services, which is expected in around three years time.

More interesting applications, such as mobile gaming and picture messaging are in the works, and the uptake of GPRS is likely to depend on how compelling these become for consumers.

Operators have a tricky tightrope to walk here because they want to encourage people to use GPRS (which makes better use of available bandwidth) but not make it so good that customers will balk at upgrading to 3G phones. 3G services are likely to be extremely expensive because of the silly amounts of money operators paid for licences, to say nothing of the cost of building new networks.

For these reasons the acceptance of BT Cellnet's GPRS service in the market will be closely watched. ®

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