Vodafone eyes GPRS for everyone

I've just had a meeting with Grahame Maher, head of Vodafone New Zealand, about the upcoming switch to GPRS. He didn't want to talk technology but rather services and applications - it's not what you've got it's what you do in the new world of 2.5G telecommunications, apparently.

I’ve just had a meeting with Grahame Maher, head of Vodafone New Zealand, about the upcoming switch to GPRS. He didn’t want to talk technology but rather services and applications — it’s not what you’ve got it’s what you do in the new world of 2.5G telecommunications, apparently.

I must say I agree — and I think Vodafone’s positioning of itself in this way will serve the company well in the fight against Telecom for the high-speed hearts and minds of cellular users.

Before becoming Vodafone, the company was called BellSouth. It spent years arguing, quite rightly, that GSM was superior to AMPS, Telecom’s favoured cellular network technology. As Maher points out, that didn’t stop customers avoiding BellSouth in droves and flocking to Telecom’s easier-to-use service. In fact, Vodafone has had a superior technology for its lifespan in New Zealand. Vodafone customers have been able to text message everyone on the network for eight years now, but it’s only taken off in the last two. Why? Maher says it relates directly to his “service over technology” argument.

“Under BellSouth, users had to pay an access fee, then sign on for the service and it was incredibly complicated,” he says. When Vodafone arrived customers were sending around 5000 messages a month. Now they average between 800,000 and 900,000 per day. It’s a matter of making the service easy to use and worth using.

Now I know you’re saying, “Come on, text messaging isn’t useful. It’s nice and it can be fun but it’s hardly a business tool”. I admit I thought I was the only person to ever use text messaging as a business tool — sending quotes back from a conference in Australia via SMS while the paper was being put together on deadline was cool, even if the final quote in the paper was “USR HS N CMNT @ THS TYM”.

But no, there are in fact dozens of companies using text messaging for business purposes. Milk tankers text milk yield figures back to base. Franchised cleaners and gardeners get job orders via text. Couriers use it instead of pagers. That’s the kind of thing Maher wants to do with GPRS — when he has handsets to sell. First, you’ll get the business users with specific applications, and once the phones come down in price you’ll see consumers taking them up. But, and this is the cunning part, rather than offering a service to high-end users only, Maher intends to offer a service throughout the Vodafone phone range, from the newest Bluetooth-enabled GPRS handsets down to the base model GSM phone, and all points in between.

“Take sports coverage. We’d offer full streaming video on 3G phones, a down-loadable snapshot of the best try for GPRS and a text message update on GSM, that sort of thing,” he says. That end-to-end coverage is a great idea — same service but at different levels of delivery.

Business users should find GPRS adds another level of usefulness to their cellphones. Maher himself has two SIM cards because you can’t talk on the phone and look at data on a wireless unit at the same time — under GPRS you’d be able to receive email and call someone to discuss it simultaneously. Maher promotes the “always on” aspect of GPRS as being just as important, if not more so, than higher speeds.

And as for the speed issue, he isn’t phased by Telecom’s claims that its 2.5G solution, CDMA, will run three times faster than GPRS at its peak. “From a technical point of view there is no difference in speed between GPRS and CDMA 1.x”. I guess the truth remains to be seen on that one.

Now all that remains is for the handset manufacturers to come out with some actual handsets. Ericsson could be first off the block, closely followed by Motorola, but really everyone’s a bit slow on this one. I want my 2.5G.

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

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