Public Bluetooth trials off to a shaky start in Tokyo

A series of high-profile public trials of Bluetooth technology in Japan got off to a shaky start this week with slower than expected transmission speeds, shorter than expected range and the absence of one of the trial backers.

          A series of high-profile public trials of Bluetooth technology in Japan got off to a shaky start this week with slower than expected transmission speeds, shorter than expected range and the absence of one of the trial backers.

          The trials, which began this week at two cafes in Tokyo, were originally due to begin in mid-July, but were postponed for just over a month so that a system could be built to accommodate users with their own devices, says Yasuhito Hara, a spokesman for Nippon Ericsson, which is the Japanese unit of Sweden's Ericsson. The Bluetooth Launch Trial (BLT) project is run by Nippon Ericsson, trading company Marubeni Group and PDA (personal digital assistant) manufacturer Handspring.

          It is now possible for anybody to walk in off the street and access the Bluetooth network as long as they have preregistered, says Hara. The registration process, which can be carried out over the internet, involves users providing their Bluetooth address, a unique identification number embedded in each Bluetooth device, through which they are recognised when they try to log onto the network.

          Users without Bluetooth devices can borrow one of a handful of PDAs available in the cafe — at present they include devices from Casio Computer nd Compaq based on Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system. Devices from project backer Handspring are not currently available.

          "The Bluetooth-ready device is not ready yet, whereas the Pocket PC was ready so they are using that," says Machiko Fujishima, a spokeswoman for Handspring Japan. "We have no idea when it will be ready. Another company has been developing the Bluetooth module and I am not sure whether it is a hardware or software problem," she says.

          Once users are online, whether through their own device or one borrowed from the cafe, they are able to access the internet as well as browse a selection of content relevant to the local area surrounding the cafe, and content provided for the trial service.

          There were a few problems with the network on Tuesday, however.

          "Bluetooth usually has a useful range of around 10 metres," says Ericsson's Hara. "However, because of the pillars and people in the cafe we are getting shorter range." In fact, to ensure successful operation, staff equipped with coverage maps had to guide users to particular tables so they could be sure of being in range of a Bluetooth access point.

          Data throughput too was turning out to be a problem. Bluetooth has a theoretical maximum throughput of 768Kbit/s per device, and engineers were hoping to achieve between 600Kbit/s and 700Kbit/s under such a real-world setting. In practice, data rates proved to be much slower.

          "With a notebook computer we can get between 200Kbit/s and 300Kbit/s ," says Junji Shibata, a solution manager at Nippon Ericsson's business development team, "but with the Pocket PC we cannot get so much because it does not have much CPU (central processing unit) power, so we are getting just under 100Kbit/s ."

          The trials will last for three months at the two cafes. More are planned at a Tokyo electronics store from the end of September and on one of Japan's high-speed bullet trains in November. The bullet-train trial won't offer internet access but will allow users to browse content stored on an in-train server. The server will carry a range of content from the internet, such as news, that will be updated every time the train makes a stop at a station. That update won't be over a Bluetooth link but rather via IEEE802.11b wireless LAN system.

          The companies are conducting the trials to see if they can get a taste of how people will access the internet while at cafes and what type of information they will look for. Using such information, Nippon Ericsson hopes to devise a business model for offering such data on a commercial basis, says Hara.

          He dismisses the suggestion that IEEE802.11b, which is being deployed by Starbucks at some of its US coffee shops, is better suited for such networks.

          "With a wireless LAN you can get a much better connection but it consumes a lot of power," he says. "Our concept is much broader and not simply meant as a replacement for a wired LAN. It also takes in mobile terminals and so is much more advanced than '11b.' Bluetooth also allows information to be pushed to devices."

          This last point, the ability for Bluetooth networks to deliver information to devices without the user initiating the transfer, is especially interesting to Hara and the team at Ericsson.

          "You could have, for example, people walking into an airport and up-to-date flight information being delivered to their PDAs automatically," he says.

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