Mobile Enterprise


3G: And then there were four

Three of the UK’s mobile operators have now joined 3 in offering next generation services.

The highlight of the summer of 2004 – at least for mobile industry watchers – was the quickening of pace for 3G technology, as Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile launched their first UMTS-based offerings. None of the networks opted to launch with a voice handset, however, leaving 3, Hutchison’s year-old service, as the only operator offering 3G voice calls.

Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile clearly hope that data-only services will attract early adopters, especially business users. The UMTS-based networks promise data speeds of up to 384kbps, although in practice, speeds of around 200kbps seem more realistic. And, given that 3G coverage still lags behind that for regular GSM or even GPRS-based services, each network is offering a dual mode PC card that supports GPRS too.

Pricing for the new services appears to be keener than for existing GPRS, but it is hardly aggressive (see table: How 3G data cards stack up). Operator subsidies bring the cost of a data card down to under £100 for high volume users willing to sign a one-year contract.

Orange and T-Mobile offer “unlimited use” tariffs (with a 1GB monthly data allowance under their fair usage policies). Vodafone’s maximum data bundle is 500MB. O2 has yet to show its hand: a 3G launch is expected later this year or in early 2005.

Orange claims that it has market leading coverage, with 66% of the UK population within reach of 3G, and the company plans to expand this to 80% next year. Vodafone’s strategy has been to focus on the south of England and major communications corridors. T-Mobile is bundling access to its WiFi hotspots with its top of the range 3G tariff.

Analysts believe this is a sensible approach. “The greatest usage for 3G will be in city centres and airports,” says Paolo Pescatore, mobile technologies analyst at IDC. “People won’t want to use 3G in their offices, as they will have access to their own local area networks.”

Coverage should improve steadily over the next year or so, not least because operators are receiving feedback from users in the field that helps them fine-tune their networks.

User experience of 3G has been patchy. Retailers admit to data cards being retur-ned, and, even in areas with supposedly strong data coverage, there can be connection problems, especially in buildings.

The first generation of 3G cards also appear to share some of the problems the 3 network experienced with its voice services, with equipment struggling in areas on the boundary of a 2.5G and 3G signal.

Ben Wood, mobile technologies analyst at Gartner, says that he has successfully connected with data speeds of between 200kpbs and 250kbps on 3G networks. But he cautions that the technical difference between networks, combined with differences in their strategies, affects how well the technology works.

“Vodafone is committed to quality over [area of] coverage [but] is concentrating on inside the M25 and in the major cities,” says Wood. “Orange has been overlaying its 3G network on its existing 1800MHz [GSM] network.”

Orange’s 1800MHz network needs a high density of masts to support it. Consequently the company has more masts than O2 or Vodafone, making it easier for Orange to roll out UMTS.

The challenge for 3, he says, is that the network uses very early 3G equipment – a consequence of it being first to the market. O2 could benefit from the decision to hold back on 3G services, as it should be able to learn from rivals’ roll-outs.

For businesses taking services from Vodafone, Orange or T-Mobile, 3G networks are now at a stage where it should be possible to run pilot projects. Networks are offering favourable terms on equipment to corporates, including data cards on loan.

This enables IT departments to test compatibility with existing systems, such as virtual private networks and firewalls, as well as network coverage, at virtually no financial risk. Where companies are already running services for mobile workers using 2.5G data cards and laptop PCs, a trial of 3G should be a simple matter.

The networks may not be reliable enough, however, to justify a new project purely on the strength of bandwidth. Although 3G promises higher data speeds, enterprises will need to write applications with the assumption that their staff will frequently have to fall back on GPRS-level services or else download data in a 3G coverage area or at a WiFi hotspot, and then work offline.

Applications that can work with periodic data updates will function well under the current 3G networks, but companies will struggle to make those that are very ‘chatty’ or require high bandwidth on demand to work properly.

And, as yet, there is no 3G support for enterprises that have based their mobile working technologies around PDAs. There are no SecureDigital or Compact Flash format 3G cards, and no Bluetooth-compatible 3G phones, at least on Orange, Vodafone and T-Mobile. If the network operators want 3G to be a real option for businesses, they still have work to do.




The Mobile Interview

Charmaine Eggberry is European vice president of the enterprise business at Research in Motion, the company behind the hugely popular BlackBerry communicator.

What is the biggest challenge for mobile enterprises?

Charmaine Eggberry: (CE): The biggest issue is how do you remove, not add, complexity by changing the way you work. Some argue that many mobile working technologies have been expensive in terms of total cost of ownership, and hard to quantify in terms of ROI. But removing complexity, that is a really hard thing to do.

Will converged devices encourage more people to use data on the move?

CE: Organisations and individuals are embracing technology and mobile working at a prudent rather than accelerating rate. The opportunity is huge for all organisations and individuals to embrace the idea of the mobile office. The sky is the limit.

Will costs for mobile data have to fall, in order for usage to rise?

CE: With many new types of technology, you have to lower the barriers to entry and price is one area people are very concerned about. But for BlackBerry, price is the least important part of why people have adopted the technology. They are looking at gains in productivity and immediacy; price is somewhat irrelevant.

Will businesses start to favour paying for mobile data rather than voice?

CE: Given that adoption of mobile data is still in its infancy, there is space for both voice and data. Individuals using their BlackBerry devices for data only usually ask for voice to be turned on after three months, because they want to use one device.




Taking mobile to the Edge

The new technology of Edge will prolong the life of GPRS

Third-generation mobile phones, based around the UMTS standard, currently offer the best prospects for high data speeds and efficient use of network capacity in Europe. But it will by no means be the only high-speed data technology available to businesses.

At Orange’s launch of its 3G service in August, CEO Sanjiv Ahuja announced that the company is introducing another technology, Edge, in its networks in France, Slovakia and Romania.

Even for mobile operators, 3G represents a new technology. It is based around the wideband CDMA standard, rather than GSM. Edge, however, is a more familiar technology – an evolution of GPRS. Moreover, GPRS-capable base stations can be upgraded to Edge mostly by using software.

Edge, which is short for Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution, should offer download speeds of up to 220kbps – below those of 3G but still significantly faster than the current generation of GPRS services. This will allow consumer applications such video and audio downloads and audio streaming.

For businesses, it offers the prospect of much faster access to web-based content from mobile devices.

According to Ahuja, Orange will introduce Edge in France in order to offer high-speed services to the more rural areas of the country. But he added that the operator might also roll out Edge in the UK.

“The experience we are gaining in these countries through trials is giving us the experience we will potentially use to extend our UK network with Edge, should we need to,” Ahuja said.

Edge is already being deployed in Italy by operator TIM. “Edge is attractive to operators because of the lower cost [of upgrading their networks],” says Paolo Pescatore, analyst at IDC.

But although Edge should be a relatively simple upgrade for the mobile phone companies, the process could be more painful for businesses.

Nokia, as one of the main backers of Edge, has announced a number of compatible handsets. These are dual mode, with GPRS and Edge services, but no support for 3G. Orange is committed to launching Edge Mobile Office data cards as well as a card that supports both Edge and 3G in one card.

Where operators intend to use Edge as part of their mobile broadband strategies, support for devices will be essential. Users, especially enterprise users, will not tolerate having to switch handsets or data cards in order to gain access to the higher data rates promised by Edge.

If networks are to position Edge as an incremental upgrade to GPRS – rather than as an out and out alternative to 3G – they will need to offer Edge support in parts of their territories that are also covered by their 3G networks.

This will enable users who have bought Edge devices to continue to use the service’s faster speeds across the network, rather than having to fall back to GPRS. It would be ironic, not to mention irritating, for users who buy Edge phones to have to rely on GPRS speeds because they are in an area where 3G is available.

The problem might be less acute for businesses signing up for data-only services than for consumers. The develop- ment of Edge-compatible data cards that also support 3G appears to be more adv-anced than the development of handsets. As all the 3G data cards on the market currently support dual mode 3G and GPRS operation, adding support for Edge should not require major engineering.

But those companies that have bought GPRS/3G cards could find themselves needing to invest in new equipment in order to take advantage of Edge.

The network equipment vendors believe, though, that operators will want to roll out Edge, not least of all to maximise the return on their existing infrastructure investments.

“Edge is nothing dramatic. It is an upgrade to GPRS for faster data speeds and [better] data capacities,” says Jussi Ware, a vice president at Nokia. “It gives three times the speed and three times the capacity, so it is a no-brainer for networks to update their GSM platforms to support it.”

Nokia’s vision – as the main proponent of the technology – is for ubiquitous Edge coverage, regardless of the roll-out of 3G. Indeed, most of the company’s higher-end handsets now support Edge. “It is a low level of spend for network operators and allows 3G services to be used nationwide fairly easily,” says Ware.

For enterprise users, whether Edge is a compelling option depends on how soon network providers roll it out and the services offered over it. If businesses find current GPRS connections too slow, but need to operate in areas not yet reached by 3G, the relatively small cost of switching to a data card that works on Edge and UMTS could be justifiable.




Waking the dead zones

SeaFrance opens up the airwaves of the Channel while GNER put train managers online

Stories abound – some almost certainly urban myths – that mobile phone users on parts of England’s south coast sometimes find that their handsets have hooked up to a French network. This can make for interesting miss-routed calls; less amusing are the bills for roaming for calls that were made at home.

But the topography of the English Channel makes wireless communications an unpredictable affair. It is usually possible to use a mobile phone on board a ship in coastal waters, for example, but a few miles offshore and communication is usually only possible via expensive maritime satellite systems.

However, some ferry passengers – and perhaps more importantly, transport operators – are now able to stay in contact throughout their journeys. Ferries from the SeaFrance fleet operating on the busy Dover-Calais route have been equipped with a new pilot system from Orange that provides a stronger link between ship and shore.

Travellers connecting to Orange will be able to use their phones throughout the crossing. They connect to the UK network for half the journey and then flip over to Orange France. There is no additional charge for Orange subscribers using the service: they will pay UK domestic tariffs for the English half of the Channel and French roaming tariffs in the French half.

Users of other mobile networks are prevented from using the service until they cross into the ‘foreign’ half of the Channel. GSM rules banning domestic roaming between networks means that a UK user on Vodafone, T-Mobile or O2 cannot hook up to a signal via Orange’s UK network. But once on the French side, they can roam in the usual way.

The service supports GPRS connections and will support 3G, at least on the French side, when it reaches coastal areas in 2005. Both companies hope the service will attract customers who are frequent Channel hoppers.

The cross-Channel project is just one of a number of efforts under way to remove Europe’s remaining mobile phone blackspots. Orange already has an initiative aimed at improving connections in rail tunnels.

Discussions are ongoing about schemes to bring mobile coverage to both the Paris Metro and the London Underground.

Above ground, the UK’s mainline operator GNER is spending £1 million on providing handheld computers – HP iPAQs – to its train staff. GNER is handing out 157 PDAs to train managers on its East Coast Mainline service.

Staff are using the computers to provide accurate train running information to passengers and details on connections. The handheld computers use Bluetooth connections to GPRS mobile phones to provide data links to the GNER web site.

Although GNER has one of the better punctuality records for a long-distance rail operator, the PDA service comes into its own when a train is delayed – or when a passenger misses a connection and needs to plan a new itinerary or route. Previously, GNER train staff would have to call the central control room in York to answer passenger queries.

Since staff started to use the first GPRS-based systems in February 2004, train staff can get answers quicker, freeing them up to deal with more queries.

The railway operator is also currently running trial services providing WiFi to passengers on a number of trains.



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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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