Congestion builds up on GPRS; WAP blocked
When the GPRS standard was first proposed, sceptics said that it didn't have the capacity that a serious service would need. Now, it turns out that some carriers are finding it hard to meet existing demand and are switching data services off.
Asia-Pacific mobile provider Globe Telecom has attempted to limit the amount of GPRS traffic by concentrating its resources on customers which use its own WAP gateways.
According to Inq7 news, the carrier has blocked access to wireless application protocol (WAP) sites outside of the company’s own "MyGlobe" mobile portal, blaming "network congestion."
In Europe, sources inside two GPRS carriers agreed that the problem was not limited to Manila or the far East, and that service availability was "sporadic."
One technical executive who asked not to be identified, said: "European GPRS carriers are far more reliable than they used to be, but frankly, we're having to switch resources around a lot to keep up these days. There are times when demand for dialup data (high speed circuit-switched data, HSCSD) means we have to pull circuits away from GPRS, and vice versa."
Another source, also not wanting to be quoted by name, said that they were hoping to see some data traffic shift to other wireless, like WiFi and 3G - but that these were not yet providing the capacity that they'd hoped for. "We're having to make up the demand with GPRS, and we don't always have the spare capacity on the network which you need to run fast GPRS," he said.
Users speak of a drop in GPRS speeds, and an increase in connection failures. "Generally, it's getting to the point where we're finding it's quicker to use a HSCSD connection for downloads, because that tends to run at around 30 kilobits per second - by contrast, GPRS is often throttled right back to 9,600 bits per second," said one senior executive at a mobile phone company.
Ironically, the situation has reached the point where American users are likely to find GPRS more useful than Europeans.
A team of Microsoft demonstrators visiting London recently to show off a feature of a new Windows Mobile smartphone expressed astonishment at the slow data rates available in the centre of the city. "Back in Seattle, we get far better data speeds," they summarised. "Probably, because there are so few users set up to use GPRS, the capacity is under-used in the US."
Moves like the Globe Telecom can be expected to increase.
It seems that several mobile phone companies still haven't grasped the importance of moves like the T-Mobile expansion into WiFi hotspots. They see the queries over the wisdom of trying to run a commercial service in a spectrum which is free; they don't understand the pressure of cheap data on their expensive voice networks.
Experiments with 3G data show that it is truly possible to get to broadband speeds over the Hutchison 3G "3" network in the centre of London, with a recent NewsWireless.Net test achieving throughput of 304 kilobits on download. But few customers are going to sign up for a broadband service which only works in the middle of London, and the cost is still astronomical - even if you write off the costs of the licences.
By setting up hotspots of its own, in places like Starbucks, T-Mobile is ensuring that it gets some revenue from its data customers; but more importantly, it is making sure that heavy email users don't clog up its valuable GPRS resources.
Services like iMode, now being offered in the Netherlands by KPN are necessary to provide ordinary phone users with mobile photo services from camera phones. That iMode service is provided over GPRS.
If those networks sell data to really heavy users with laptops, they will find themselves having to rapidly increase the number of GSM masts that provide GPRS channels, because GPRS works on the assumption that there is spare capacity.