Work ‘to go’ as mobile data comes of age

24 Apr 2003

When the first mobile phone call using cellular radio technology was made 30 years ago this month, it was a voice call. However, the technology held out the promise of reliable data transmission. Now, with penetration of voice services reaching saturation point, mobile operators are looking to data as a means of generating new revenue streams.

The introduction of UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system), commonly referred to as 3G (third generation) by the beginning of 2004, will certainly do much to drive that business with promises of high speeds and reliable transmission. But the mobile operators aren’t sitting around waiting for that to happen. In fact, ever since GSM — the most common technology behind mobile phones sold throughout the world — they have touted its ability to carry data traffic.

GSM is a digital technology as opposed to the analogue technology of the first generation of cellular-based mobile phones. For this reason it is sometimes referred to as 2G. While designed to carry primarily voice its digital nature makes it suitable for carrying data, but at slow speeds. The maximum throughput possible using a simple GSM connection is 9.6Kbps (kilobits per second), comparable to the maximum capacity possible on a fixed line about 10 years ago.

One way around this difficulty was to combine two or more GSM channels to boost speed, much in the same way it is possible to combine ISDN channels on fixed lines. The user inserts a PCMCIA card (a standard of PC card) into the appropriate slot on his or her laptop. While the user gets speeds of up to 28.8Kbps, the downside is that the charges start accumulating when the connection is made and continue until the connection is broken.

There are also technical limitations. According to Steven Towers of Vodafone Ireland’s technology solutions and support division — the only mobile operator in Ireland offering this service, under the name High Speed — the card must be able to ‘see’ three channels adjacent to one another to work.

Towers says the High Speed service from Vodafone is suitable for people who want to connect, transfer large files in one go and then disconnect. Such users might include press photographers working on the move.

High Speed is also the only option currently open to Macintosh users.

The next step up from High Speed is GPRS, which stands for general package radio service. Vodafone and O2 introduced this service at the beginning of last year and it offers advantages over High Speed.

“GPRS is based on packet technology,” says Damien Gallagher, business consultant manager at O2 Ireland. “This means the user can stay connected to the network throughout the day with data being sent in packages when needed. The advantage of a continuous connection is that it removes the need to dial up and log on repeatedly.”

This also means that users are only billed for the amount of data they send, not for the length of time they are connected. Speeds are also slightly higher. “GPRS performance depends on the protocols you are using and the data card installed in your laptop,” explains Towers. “For instance, for the new Vodafone Mobile Connect card, the average speed would be in the mid-20Kbps range. But if you are using FTP [file transfer protocol] you would see a different rate than if you were browsing the web using HTTP [hyper text transfer protocol]. We’ve seen the throughput peak into the 30Kbps range at times.”

The other advantage of GPRS is that it offers greater availability. As Towers explains, while High Speed needs to use adjacent GSM channels, GPRS does not. GPRS also has the potential, he says, to develop further in terms of speed while High Speed is fairly static. “I would be surprised to see High Speed change much,” he admits.

For those whose laptops do not have PCMCIA card slots, or who do not wish to use a card, other options are available. It is possible to connect a laptop or personal digital assistant (PDA) to a GPRS-enabled mobile phone by means of a USB cable or even a Bluetooth wireless connection. “A lot of companies have been doing that already,” says Gallagher. “We would support them setting up such connections. Device drivers can have different effects on Windows 2000 than they would have on Windows XP so the technical support department would provide help on a case-by-case basis.”

Vodafone also provides support for this kind of solution. “We support all connection options for common Microsoft platforms,” says Towers. “We sell Bluetooth products and we support connectivity. If you have a Windows 2000 laptop and, say, a TDK Bluetooth card, we will help you set them up. Our interest is to get you rocking and rolling. Some 99.9pc of calls to us are resolved on the first call and rarely do we need to escalate to the manufacturer.”

While High Speed and GPRS provide coverage wherever a mobile phone works, O2 has also branched into the area of wireless networks and is creating hotspots in hotels and other locations throughout the country. Speeds are substantially faster than GPRS, reaching up to a theoretical maximum of 11Mbps (megabits per second), although actual speeds will depend on contention, ie the number of users sharing a hotspot, and the amount of traffic on the internet at that time.

Users must have a suitably equipped laptop. As noted above, O2 sells the Nokia D211 card offering both GPRS and WLAN (wireless local area network) connectivity. However, users are free to purchase cards conforming to the Wi-Fi standard from any supplier and some manufacturers such as IBM and Apple will even sell laptops with the necessary circuitry built-in. This will become more common as manufacturers use Intel’s new Centrino chipset (see page 8), which supports this technology. In fact, Intel is co-branding the hotspots with O2 to guarantee quality of service to Centrino users.

The downside is that users must be within 100 metres of a hotspot and payment is based on connection time rather than data. Users without a contract pay €10 for one hour of access starting from when access is first established or €20 for unlimited access over a 24-hour period. Contract users can pay a fixed monthly charge of €10 plus Vat, which includes one hour of free access per month. After that they pay €2 plus Vat per 20-minute session. Or they can opt to forego the monthly fee and simply pay €3 plus Vat per 20-minute session.

To access the service, users turn on their WLAN cards and launch their browsers. They should automatically get an O2 Wireless Zone start-up screen where they enter their scratch card or contract numbers and the number of a mobile phone they have access to. A text message with a PIN is sent to the mobile phone and they enter the PIN to gain access.

Zones have been established in Heuston Station, The Westbury, The Burlington Hotel, The Towers JurysDoyle hotel, Bewley’s Hotel Ballsbridge, Bewley’s Hotel Newlands Cross, The Shelbourne Meridien Hotel and Hilton Dublin so far. Additional sites in Cork, Limerick and Galway are being added.

User-friendly data delivery

The new Mobile Connect card from Vodafone takes the hassle out of connecting to the company’s GPRS network. Manufactured by Belgian company Option, it slides into the PCMCIA slot on a user’s laptop computer. There’s nothing revolutionary about this. Data cards have been around for quite some time. However, Vodafone has gone to the trouble of creating a dashboard application to make it easy for the user.

For instance, access to a corporate local area network over a secure virtual private network can be achieved simply by clicking a button. Other buttons enable the user to send text messages and emails or browse the web.

The dashboard also displays useful information such as the name of the network being used, the signal strength, the amount of data sent and received and the speeds at which data is carried. There is also an option to create customised online help screens.

The Mobile Connect card costs €247 plus Vat. Optional SIM card rental is a further €7.50 per month and normal GPRS tariffs apply. Minimum system requirements include a laptop with PCMCIA Type II slot and running one of Windows 2000, Windows 2000 Pro, Windows XP Pro or Windows NT4 with Service Pack 6. Macintosh support is foreseen eventually but it will be at least September before this appears.

Vodafone has also entered into an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) agreement with Dell. “We will provide a complete working package in a Dell laptop,” says Vodafone’s Towers. “There are more deals like this to come. IBM will be next in line.”

O2 also markets a number of data cards, although none carries its own brand. “We would sell the Novatel Merlin G201, Sierra Wireless Aircard 750 and the Nokia D211 card, which offers support for both GPRS and WLAN,” says O2’s Gallagher.

By David Stewart