In the palm of your hand

Regional GSM operators are slowly beginning to introduce GPRS to their subscriber base. However, for users to migrate towards the technology killer applications are the key.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  July 10, 2002

GPRS roll out|~||~||~|Two years ago, operators were full of prophecies about the potential of the mobile Internet and m-commerce. But as mobile phone providers rolled out WAP-enabled handsets, the reality proved far more disappointing. Content and services were lacking and users felt duped by the over hyped WAP protocol.

However, the introduction of general packet radio service (GPRS) or 2.5G technology, is sparking new interest among the operators, content providers and mobile phone vendors as they search for ways to capitalise on the superior bandwidth and ‘always on’ Internet capabilities it offers. Simultaneously they are hoping to rebuild customer confidence in the mobile platform.

GPRS provides the technology and connectivity for delivering applications, but ultimately it will take more than this to push users to subscribe to the service — it will take content and applications.

“GPRS is not a mass commodity type of thing, you have to drive the content to interest every individual,” says Ivan Fernandes, managing director & CEO of Ducont.com.

“The onus is on the operators to introduce innovative GPRS products — possibly entertainment-focused — to spur demand for the service,” agrees the Arab Advisors Group.

When it comes to delivering the killer applications for GPRS, data streaming of sports, current affairs, financial news and location-based services offer perhaps the most obvious interest to users.

For Ducont, delivering news over GPRS is an extension to the existing SMS news services that it already provides to its regional subscriber base.

“I basically connect to my access point in GPRS, which is configured for my favourite financial stocks and when the market is open the stock market figures starting streaming on my mobile screen. We are working on the same data streaming for sports,” explains Fernandes.

“These are valuable additions to our existing products, such as our SMS alerts on sports,” he adds.

GPRS also enables content providers to expand upon the restrictive nature of SMS services by introducing bitmap animations. Later down the line, multimedia messaging services (MMS) will increase interaction and graphics further.

“SMS is good because you get timely information, but you only get 160 characters. With GPRS we can provide more user interaction,” comments Fernandes.

It is the higher bandwidth and connectivity speeds that GPRS provides that make more interactive applications and services, such as MMS possible. The technology is capable of offering data transfer speeds from 32 K/bits/s up to 115 K/bits/s, though the reality is more like 8 or 9 K/bits/s. This is, however, still a significant improvement in terms of mobile connectivity.

As such, operators are keen to impress upon users that the issues of bandwidth and connectivity that hindered the uptake of WAP have been overcome. Users are no longer required to dial in to access the Internet because their connection with GPRS is always on.

“Users have better bandwidth on GPRS than WAP and the time to connect with GPRS is instantaneous, but with WAP you had to dial a number and wait for it to connect,” says Ducont’s CEO.

“Our customers will now be able to have high speed data connectivity with 3- 4 times the current GSM data speed, making the transfer of information simple, quick and affordable,” claims Jean-Christophe Caillat, CEO of MobileCom, a Jordanian GSM operator that recently introduced GPRS.

||**||Benefits|~||~||~|The minimalist nature of conveying data through tiny mobile or PDA screens can also be overcome through GPRS. Users can simply put their GPRS-enabled SIM card into laptops.

Although, very few GPRS notebooks have actually reached the market, regional solutions provider, Bond Communications has stolen a lead on more high profile notebook vendors with the launch of its Waynmakan laptop.

According to Bond Communications, GPRS laptops slot into the market somewhere between wireless local area networks (WLANs) and mobile PDAs and other devices.

Bond Communications’ president & CEO Nicholas Mobayed, claims the company is already seeing interest from hotels around the region that are looking to offer guests Internet connectivity in their rooms, but do not want the disruption or cost of wiring their properties.

“It makes more sense to buy some laptops, which operate on an infrastructure that is costing them very little money, than to wire hundreds of rooms. The hotel is just charged for GPRS usage, then they in turn charge the guest,” he says.

“The hotel is making money from day one and the disruption to business is zero,” Mobayed adds.

Bond Communications is not alone in taking the GPRS platform to the business market. With the uptake of GPRS services in the mass market expected to be slow, Ducont and fellow content provider Info2Cell have begun targeting business users.

Developing specific applications for enterprises will at least garner a small subscription base for both the GSM operator and the application service provider.

Ducont is looking to develop existing relationships with its customer base, such as Dubai Police. According to Fernandes, GPRS applications could easily be developed that would enable the Police force to update information on their systems on the fly.

“Potential improvements could include the use of cameras to take images of accidents or suspected criminals, which could then be passed back into the systems and analysed by the co-operations people online,” he comments.

Mobilising the workforce is also the approach that Info2Cell is promoting. Bashar Dahabra, the company’s CEO, says that the Java-enabled GPRS handsets becoming available today facilitate the development of such applications.

“The applications we see companies identifying with are those enabling a mobile workforce. New phones are Java enabled, which means that you can write a Java applet and application that sits within the phone. The applet acts as a client and communicates with the master application in the head office,” he explains.

“If organisations have a page that shows information on delivery schedules, they could write an applet that pushes information as an alert to an employee’s phone. Or it could push sales, stock status, internal intranet announcements or pickup announcements,” Dahabra says.

||**||Local limitations|~||~||~|Although, content providers are beginning to develop applications for GPRS, the roll out of the technology on a local level remains minimal. So far the UAE, Jordan and Lebanon are the only countries that have launched the service, and in most of these countries GPRS has only been available for six months.

MobileCom only launched its GPRS service a couple of months ago, and cited access to data as the main driver for the provision of the service to its 235,000 subscribers.

“Today the trend is to have more accessibility to data and this is the reason we wanted to provide GPRS for our end users. Giving them more facilities to get access to data — meaning WAP, meaning the Web and other features,” says Erick Valette, chief marketing officer, MobileCom.

“GPRS allows this access to content in the speediest way and with the same coverage as we provide for voice,” he adds.

The monopolistic nature of the region’s operators seems to be the main factor for the slow roll out of GPRS. The Arab Advisors Group reports that in countries that have introduced GPRS, competition between the GSM operators has been a driving factor.

“A general trend in the adoption of new technologies can be seen in markets opening up for competition and duopoly markets,” the group comments in a report.

“In Lebanon and Jordan’s GSM duopoly markets the trend is that when one GSM operator offers a new service, its competitor quickly follows suit,” the report continues.

Content providers and mobile phone vendors suggest the slow roll out of GPRS is not necessarily linked to the lack of competition among the region’s operators, but merely the ‘trend following’ nature of the Middle East as a whole.

“We have been through quite a long process to sell this idea [GPRS] to the operators in the region… as always with customers here in the Middle East their attitude is to wait and see,” says Bo Stenqvist, director of mobile Internet applications & solutions, Ericsson.

“However, in the last few months the awareness of the need for data services has been growing and some operators are moving ahead,” he adds.

Opinions concerning the speed of uptake and future development of GPRS in the region also remain divided. Mobile phone vendors, operators and content providers remain confident that GPRS is beginning to gain both momentum, and, more importantly users. Analysts believe the technology faces an uphill battle — at least in the short term.

“In the Middle East, GPRS is just starting, there are not many applications on offer. Some operators are bringing in GPRS, but still it is just the very beginning of GPRS in the region. But it is expected to explode in the coming year and at the same time this migration toward GPRS and then UMTS (3G) is going on,” predicts Dr. Abdullah Tourbah, vice president, information & communications, mobile networks, Siemens AG.

However, the Arab Advisors Group, argues that the uptake of GPRS and its services will be hindered not only by a lack of interest in mobile services, but by a general disinterest in the Internet as a whole.

“Jordan’s Fastlink and MobileCom launched the GPRS service in early 2002, but it is not taking off well,” says Sarah Alalul, analyst, Arab Advisors Group. “The Arab Advisors Group does not see a great future for GPRS in the short term in Jordan because of the combined effect of very cost-conscious prepaid GSM users and a small Internet subscriber market.”

Speaking at the launch of MobileCom’s GPRS service, Dr. Fawaz Zu’bi, Jordan’s Minister of Information & Communications Technology was keen to stress the importance attached to the roll out of GPRS in the development of the country’s mobile market

“MobileCom’s GPRS network is further proof of the continuing success of the Jordanian mobile market, which has grown over the last two years to around 25% penetration,” he commented.

However, Arab Advisors Group suggests that for many of the region’s operators the launch of GPRS is more of a marketing exercise than a reflection of either market demand or operator interest.

“[There is] an indication that launching new services is more of a marketing and branding issue than launching a service to satisfy real revenue-growing demand,” states the report.

||**||Content is king|~||~||~|Fernandes believes the region’s operators are willing to support GPRS, but suggests that instead of putting their focus on developing killer applications and content to drive users to GPRS, they have instead placed the emphasis on network performance and the subscriber base.

“The operator is more interested in two things at the moment, getting network stability and ensuring that customers subscribe to facilities rather than looking at applications,” he explains.

Info2Cell’s Dahabra believes the situation of the operator’s is a chicken and egg scenario. With the operators not keen to invest in the technology until they have a substantial user base, but the only way they can drive users to subscribing to GPRS is by investing in content and applications for the technology.

“Operators did not launch GPRS because people were expected to subscribe to GPRS simply because it was available. Operators are investing in GPRS because it is the foundation for future services,” he comments.

Availability of GPRS and its applications are not the only factors that play a role in the uptake of the technology. Customers also have to invest in a GPRS-enabled handset or PDA.

MobileCom has tried to overcome this issue by bundling a package consisting of an Ericsson GPRS phone and a Compaq iPAQ. “Still, these phones are expensive and it is only a limited number of users that can afford these phones,” says Ericsson’s Stenqvist.

For users the cost of the handset can be added to the fee for subscribing to GPRS with the operator, the cost of downloading or uploading data and the price of any applications they subscribe to with content providers.

The frequency with which new mobile handsets are launched into the market is also disconcerting. Most mobile phone vendors in the region are currently preparing to launch their MMS-enabled phones, even though none of the region’s GSM operators have firmly announced any plans to introduce the service.

“You can’t expect consumers to say ‘hey GPRS — change my handset. Six months later MMS — change my handset.’ That’s something that we have to deal with, we can’t expect to launch a GPRS service today and 100,000 customers tomorrow,” comments Ducont’s Fernandes.

For GPRS and its related services to really gather momentum around the region, the pressure lies predominantly with the GSM operators. Firstly, operators need to ensure the stability, capacity and performance of their networks to support GPRS services.

“If you manage the GPRS expectations correctly it will work. GPRS is dedicated for data, but on the physical network it still shares the same bandwidth as GSM. It’s up to the operator to segregate their network and allocate however much for GSM voice traffic and however much for GPRS — today that is a very small amount,” explains Fernandes.

Users of GPRS are also susceptible to the same areas of coverage that they experience on their mobile phones. If they travel out of their operator’s GSM range then they lose their GPRS connectivity.

“The only disadvantage is that you are running on somebody else’s network, which is critical because that network could fail,” says Mobayed.

“There are areas where you cannot use GPRS and you still need other network connections, such as wireless LAN, one because the bandwidth is larger and two because there are situations where you don’t want to piggyback on someone else,” he adds.

Operators also need to encourage content providers to develop interactive information applications, be it for the consumer, or the business user. Only then will consumers begin to assess the value of investing in the GPRS-enabled device, the subscription and the content charges.

“Should [operators’] be able to introduce attractive and popular GPRS-based services other than simple connection to the Internet, GPRS’ future in the region will turn out to be much brighter and will be a nice prelude to the eventual rollout of 3G technologies,” comments the Arab Advisors Group.||**||

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