GPRS calls wait for phones, apps

Scarcity of handsets and applications is all that's stopping the commercial launch of Vodafone New Zealand's GPRS network.

Scarcity of handsets and applications is all that's stopping the commercial launch of Vodafone New Zealand's GPRS (general packet radio services) network.

But handset availability in commercial quantities is still months away. Ericsson says it will release its first GPRS phone, the 520, in April. It will be enabled for the Bluetooth wireless standard and for all three GSM network bands.

Vodafone New Zealand boss Grahame Maher, who took over the company at the start of the year, is aiming for a first-quarter launch.

“We have the world’s first national rollout of a GPRS network,” says Maher. GPRS allows voice and data to be transferred at much higher speeds than current mobile connections.

“Because it’s just an upgrade to the GSM network we were able to do it quickly and far more cheaply than building a whole new network,” Maher says. He estimates the cost at around 10% of what it would cost to build an entirely new "2.5-generation" (2.5G) network.

Telecom, currently undergoing just such a development, is paying $200 million for its CDMA network and says it will be ready to launch it commercially by the middle of the year. Both networks should offer similar performance levels for data transmission of up to 144kbit/s. Both are also still grappling with billing for the two always-on networks.

“Telecom is changing its core technology, going from D-AMPS to CDMA. We are going from a GSM core network and adding a radio layer that carries packet data rather than voice. The core network is exactly the same,” says Maher. Telecom spokesman Glen Sowry says it will run its existing cellphone network concurrently with the new CDMA network for “some time to come” for those users who don’t wish to move over.

Trials of the GPRS service have been running for some time, involving local developers as well as with some high-level overseas visitors. “We ran some GPRS services last year when Clinton was out but couldn’t discuss it at the time for security reasons,” says Maher. Now he is looking for New Zealand developers of applications for the mobile market.

“If there’s one thing I can ask of your readers it’s bring me your apps.” With a worldwide network of 170 million users and a head start of several months, Maher says New Zealand developers are in a great position to be leaders in the market.

“If you get $1 per phone for an application it will make you a millionaire overnight.” Vodafone New Zealand operates an application development programme, called Viper, that Maher boasts is the best in the Vodafone world.

“We’re ahead of the rest of the world, which is a great place to be.”

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