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Consumer GPRS is going to be a dog in the short-term

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The launch of a service that promises consumers high-speed Internet connections over mobile phones will fall short of delivering the functions business users enjoy.

As previously reported, from May 18 consumers can subscribe to a service from BT Cellnet that uses GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) phones designed to offer an "always-on" Internet connection at between two to three times the speed of current mobiles.

However unlike business users, Cellnet told us consumers linking their laptops up to the Internet will be restricted to GSM speeds, leaving them in the slow lane of the mobile information superhighway. This restriction doesn't apply to browsing WAP sites using the phone itself, where connections of up 30Kbps can be achieved, and stem from the wave of GPRS services being set up.

Industry sources tell us, for the short term, GPRS is likely to disappoint people forking out £200 for their sexy new GPRS handsets, because in practice data speeds are likely to be less than those promised by manufacturers.

The network operator's lifeblood is still voice, but they want to offer GPRS, so they will allocate a number of 'dynamic' GPRS channels to the cells in which they want to offer GPRS.

As a GPRS user, with your 3+1 handset (three possible downlink channels and one uplink channels) you can use those dynamic GPRS channels, only if a voice customer is not using them.

There is also a potential problem of congestion. We're informed that the more active GPRS users there are in a cell, scrambling for the few GPRS channels, the lower the throughput as they experience the GPRS equivalent of packet collisions. That's to say nothing of the possibility of blackspots of GPRS coverage, entering any of which might result in the timeout of sessions with servers. So much for "always-on" Internet connections, then.

All this means is that to offer a decent and ubiquitous GPRS service, an operator will need to invest in new base stations in order to increase the amount of (dedicated) channels available for both GPRS and voice users.

GPRS is the first step towards a workable mobile data service and getting it to work means carriers will have to make capital investments which they have thus far being reluctant to discuss. But this will come because if carriers aren't able to deliver attractive GPRS services it might foster user doubt about 3G - which is the last thing mobile operators want... ®

Related stories

BT Cellnet names date for consumer GPRS launch
Cellnet GPRS broadband offering sounds strangely narrow
Orange goes high-speed wireless
Why do we need 3G phones anyway?
3G's rubbish

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