Mobile Momentum

GPRS access is rapidly becoming a reality across the region. Last month, LibanCell, a GSM operator based in Lebanon, went live with its service. Motorola, one of the main infrastructure providers on the LibanCell project, went on to disclose that it was engaged in tests in five of the region’s largest markets.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  October 4, 2001

Mobile movement|~||~||~|GPRS access is rapidly becoming a reality across the region. Last month, LibanCell, a GSM operator based in Lebanon, went live with its service. Motorola, one of the main infrastructure providers on the LibanCell project, went on to disclose that it was engaged in tests in five of the region’s largest markets — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the UAE. “The public interest in the GPRS potential encouraged us to empower [our] network with wireless data infrastructure,” says Hussein Rifai, LibanCell chairman & general manager. “We believe [GPRS] brings additional value to the services we offer to our subscribers. We are the first operator in the region to deploy GPRS infrastructure countrywide, comments Rifai.

The GSM operator isn’t the only service provider racing to deliver GPRS connectivity to its subscriber base. Etisalat, which initially demonstrated its EWAP service during Gitex last year, is planning a similar launch for this year’s show. “GPRS will go live in October, enhancing our EWAP service,” says an Etisalat spokesperson.

“Obviously, there are restrictions on the use of WAP because of the limitations of the current speed of data transfer. As this speed is set to increase, we are concentrating on new applications to allow mobile users in the UAE to tailor their handsets to suit their lifestyle,” adds the spokesperson.

Details on ‘tailoring’ handsets to the lifestyle of the user are, at the time of going to press, vague. However, predicts the spokesperson, subscribers will be able to use their mobile to book and buy tickets and access corporate intranets by using GPRS networks. “These are just a few of the new [GPRS] applications we are looking at,” comments the spokesperson.

Service providers hope the additional bandwidth introduced with general packet radio service (GPRS) will spark a whole range of rich mobile content and stimulate the still fledgling data market. LibanCell’s Rifai believes the addition of GPRS will spark a market for Internet content and services. The GSM operator hopes to “open up the mobile market to a wealth of data applications, including e-commerce, e-mail and data transfer,” claims LibanCell’s press statement.

Certainly, there is a huge opportunity for growth in both the mobile voice and data markets. Currently, mobile penetration in the region is smaller when compared with markets in Europe, but the market conintues to demonstrate meteoric growth.

For example, the UAE grew at 68.2% between 1999 and 2000, according to research by Paul Budde Communications. “There is still a tremendous growth buff, the voice volume being the first and the second being SMS,” says Philippe Rixhon, telecoms consultant and partner with Acctenture. “GPRS is going to allow more data transmissions and no doubt that is going to grow,” he adds.

||**||Content questions|~||~||~|However, before everyone starts celebrating the arrival of the mobile revolution in the region, there are a number of issues that have to be addressed. Topping the agenda is content — basically the fuel of any next generation network. “Clearly, the majority of data services need to be based on local content,” says David Murray, CEO Wataniya Telecom. “The real challenge to mobile telephone companies over the next two years is understanding what the technology can permit in the real sense… and not the vendor hype,” he adds.

Jordan Telecom’s CEO, Pierre Mattei, claims the group’s mobile operator subsidiary, MobileCom is more than capable of launching GPRS services at the drop of a hat. However, there are several factors missing — content, handsets and the backend billing application capable of charging per packet, rather than per minute. “If there isn’t content then you fail,” says Mattei.

Jordan Telecom (JTC) has also announced it’s investing in a content and e-commerce venture in Jordan, to form partnerships and develop its own local content. The addition of mobile payment gateways and content to JTC Group, enables the company to offer just about every service from the content on PDA to a fixed telephone line.
Mattei declined to comment when asked how much he expected to make from the data content. “There are a lots of different models,” he said.

Securing the return on investment on GPRS is going to be an acute problem for the smaller regional markets, with low mobile phone penetration. However, if countries start to cooperate on content and services the cost of GPRS could be shared. “[Service providers] have to reuse a lot of systems from proven countries and in the case of content and services, they need to rely on a regional content provider,” predicts Rixhon.

“It should be easy within the GCC to have some partnering up to a point on this. [PTTs] could share content and services, and then they would continue to compete with each other,” he adds.

However, even before service providers invest in GPRS, they must realise the chicken and egg nature of the situation. According to Rixhon, telecoms service providers should identify the data and bandwidth needs of customers, and then invest in network upgrades. GPRS investments in the US and Europe have been lead by equipment manufacturers, resulting in a situation where, “telecos build a solution and then start looking for problems on the client side to fit the solution,” warns Rixhon.

There should be “a balance in the [service provider] in terms of the push from the [vendor] and the pull from the client. The teleco should understand exactly what the client’s needs are in terms of data transfer and broadband. Only then should they adopt a specific product to fill those needs,” says Rixhon.
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