2002: The year we made contact

Mobile telephony is about to get serious in its hunt for your business dollar. Both Vodafone and Telecom are talking about faster data to your mobile, which has to be a good thing for anyone out on the road a lot.

Mobile telephony is about to get serious in its hunt for your business dollar. Both Vodafone and Telecom are talking about faster data to your mobile (and more importantly to your mobile device, whatever that happens to be), which has to be a good thing for anyone out on the road a lot.

But while both companies are after the corporate user, each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Telecom seems to be in two minds about CDMA 1x, its latest mobile phone platform. On the one hand it's touted as "the fastest nationwide mobile data network in Australia and New Zealand and one of the fastest in the world". It's described as being faster than JetStart, sorry JetStream Starter, with test runs up to 153kbit/s. Which is nice. It will change the way people use mobile technology, they say. Telecom talks of it as the country's first real third-generation (3G) network.

But at the same time our biggest telco talks about not wanting to oversell the speed factor and that in practice it may only reach 40kbit/s to 80kbit/s. That's still quick, but really is only just faster than dial-up. The truth, I suppose, will be in the user base. Get enough people on the network and they'll increase the capacity, and if that's managed right, cellphone data will fly along. Telecom says it's easier to upgrade capacity on a cellular network than it is on a fixed line, so we shouldn't see those terrible lags when user numbers exceed the model's predictions for optimum usage.

Over at Vodafone it's hard to get numbers at all. Vodafone doesn't want to talk technology, rather business cases, user scenarios and the like. I can understand this point of view -- as far as Vodafone sees it in the 2G war it had the superior technology, GSM over TDMA, and still lost out to Telecom. This time the talk is all about customers rather than bits per second.

Vodafone does have one advantage over Telecom -- it's using the GPRS "upgrade" to GSM and there are more countries in the world looking at GPRS than CDMA. That means if you roam and want your data to go with you, Vodafone's ahead on points. However, Telecom users aren't out in the cold as they will eventually be able to use their CDMA phones in the US and Australia, and those two countries count for most of the overseas business use on the Telecom roaming network.

The good news in both camps is the introduction of PC cards that operate on the networks. Forget mobile phones -- and I'm sure Ericsson and Nokia won't thank me for that -- but when it comes to data I don't want to try to read an email on a screen the size of a credit card. I want a tiny phone for voice calls and an enormous phone for data. That to me spells two devices. The PC cards allow users to do just that -- set up your laptop or handheld with an always-on connection. To anyone who wants to do more than telemetry work (eg trucks reporting their position) this is great, because you'll be able to keep your voice and data separate and use the optimal device for each.

Only when these PC cards take off in a big way will the 2.5G networks (CDMA and GPRS) really begin to make sense. Nobody needs 40kbit/s to talk on the phone. You can do that happily with 9.6kbit/s. Data will drive the uptake of 2.5G and for that you need the business user.

Oddly, the success stories in the fast mobile data world all seem to be consumer-driven. Japan's DoCoMo is held up as the big name in high-speed mobile and it's primarily a consumer boom that's caused the incredible growth over the past few years. This means either both Telecom and Vodafone are barking up the wrong tree -- and I can't see that being the case -- or there's opportunity here for New Zealand developers of business apps to steal the march on overseas rivals.

Come up with a killer business app for the mobile world and you'll make a fortune. It could be that it's already here in the form of email or virtual private network access to the network, but I think once we've got the user base built up a bit we'll see new uses for these networks. Excellent.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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