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Stateside GPRS launched, all dressed up, anywhere to go?

Seattle debut for AT&T Wireless and Moto

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The much trumpeted 2.5G wireless data standard is now available in the US, as of today. Although now you'll have to look pretty hard to find it. AT&T Wireless has launched a service in the Seattle area for business subscribers, and promises to launch in "markets covering" 40 per cent of the US population by the end of the year, and 100 per cent by the end of 2002.

Note the sensible qualification, there. As US cellular users know only too well, maintaining decent 2G coverage even in densely populated strips such as the Valley's 101 Freeway out of San Jose is a minor miracle.

Motorola chimed in with an announcement of the first GPRS handset the Timeport 7382i, but better devices are in the pipeline. The 7382i is basically the triband IrDA Timeport 250 in a new livery. And that device is really little different externally to the venerable Timeport 7000 series. But we've been playing with Moto's Accompli 008 communicator for some time - which is yer classic StarTac styling only with some Palm-like PIM functionality. It's much more of a viable showcase for what a GPRS can deliver.

As for the service itself, it's $50 per month which includes 400 voice minutes, but only a paltry 1MB of data. Each additional kilobyte incurs an extra fee. The handset itself will be $199.99. Only a couple of months ago here, AT&T's own pricing guru Andrew Odlyzko described such usage based tariffs for always-on services as insane. (AT&T Wireless formally split from Ma Bell last week).

But this is a business service, and so it comes with thumbscrews.

Now while Europe grows weary of wireless hype and is tentative about the prospect of 2.5G data – particularly with the extortionate early pricing schemes mirrored by AT&TW's Seattle plan – there's still a tremendous amount of latent interest in a service which promises to trickle data into a personal device twenty four hours a day.

For North Americans however, this is rather old hat. It's one area where in comparison to the rest of the world, US wireless delivers an excellent service in the form of CDPD. GPRS for now won't offer any speed improvements of CDPD. Forget talk of 115 kbps – 20 kbps is much more realistic. So if you're a Nextel data subscriber there'll be little incentive to change.

The road to 3G services in the US – of which GPRS via EDGE forms an important milestone – makes the current 2G tangle in US look trivial. But the current uncertain prospects for 3G – Nomura analyst Keith Woolcock calls it a "monumental wind-up" – mean that you should pay more attention to these spaghetti roadmaps than you thought you wanted to. 2.5G could be around for a very long time. ®

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