Feature: wireless communication – Paradise, no strings attached

Telco shares in general have gone south. The launch of commercial and consumer GPRS services by BT Cellnet and Vodafone have hardly raised an eyebrow. Not the sort of stuff revolutions are made of. Yet we are at a new beginning. Wireless corporate applications used to mean giving fork lift truck drivers barcode swiping handsets. It now means just about anything a corporate and its systems integrator partner wants it to mean.

True, there are frustrations for early adopters. GPRS was supposed to be about delivering the equivalent of dial up modem data access (56.6Kbps). The truth is that in its early incarnation users will be lucky to exceed 20Kbps and in congested areas, may be lucky to get a signal at all. There was, at the time of writing, only one GPRS handset available, the Motorola T260. UMTS, with its promise of at least one megabyte per second data transfer rates for stationary users and somewhere around 100Kbps for mobile users, is still in the early trials stage, with no launch date in sight.

The much hyped advent of mobile commerce is still hype (though as Brokat shows below, this could change rapidly). Location based services, where, again according to the hype, you could soon expect your mobile phone to be deluged with advertising and personalised discount offers based on the network knowing where you are, will not happen for some considerable time. GPRS does not include positioning information, and while operators can tell which cell a user is in, that is hardly precise enough information for focused, location based advertising. Nor is it clear that operators will be prepared to make information available to third parties. Such services will have to wait until handsets include global positioning services, and there is no launch date for this in sight.

Yet none of this will stop the wireless revolution. As Steve Kennedy, head of technology futures at the fixed wire telco, Thus, observes, the potential market for wireless is enormous. “There are 35 million phone lines into premises in the UK. If even a percentage of these convert to UMTS when it arrives, that represents a really huge market.” Kennedy may be looking two years ahead but his feet are firmly on the ground. Today’s corporate applications, he argues, will begin by rediscovering the power of WAP and SMS. A staggering range of corporate information vital to mobile executives can be conveyed inside the 160 characters of an SMS message, he says. “Bloggs’ order delayed four days, offer further 10% discount,” is less than 60 characters even with vowels intact, but armed with this information a sales person could prevent Bloggs & Co’s commercial director going ballistic and dumping an account worth a few million a year.

Paul Brandwood, vice president, Internet market development at Nortel Networks, points out that UMTS, when it arrives, is a qualitatively different type of radio technology from GPRS. Where GPRS follows GSM in being a time division radio technology, UMTS is a statistical multiplexing signal which makes it both more modern, and more efficient. “Radio technology has moved on and UMTS is roughly five times more efficient than GPRS. The whole technology is optimised for packets rather than for time slots and the technology has the intelligence to differentiate between users. Everyone inside a particular geographic radio cell with a GPRS handset competes for bandwidth on equal terms. With UMTS, the opportunity exists for a service provider to offer premium priced services so that the CEO, for example, will not get elbowed aside because a junior executive wants to check on a football score.”

Inevitably, the concept of timely business information delivered out on the road is going to be brought sharply into focus in the coming months.

We will see is a rush to develop pilot “proof of concept” applications, followed by an increasing number of enterprise wide roll outs. By midwinter, the major handset providers will have GPRS phones on the market and there will be an advertising frenzy to get the message across to corporates and consumers alike. PDA manufacturers are already producing GPRS add ons such as Compaq’s GPRS “jacket” for its iPAQ. The combination of large data storage and wireless updates opens the way to still further corporate applications.

For the consultancy profession, the message is clear. The business world has never wirelessly enabled before. This is huge. Miss this boat and your partners or shareholders will be kicking lumps out of you for years to come …

“Always on” GPRS promises much …

Martin Dunsdy, global wireless leader, Deloitte Consulting

“Today GPRS is already quite widely deployed globally. In Asia the equivalent technology has been available for a while. Cingular, the largest US wireless carrier has launched GPRS services in several States. Germany and Austria are both live.

Part of the reason for its growing popularity among wireless operators is that it is relatively inexpensive for them to launch GPRS services. The core of the network, the switching centres, has to change quite radically, but the base stations only need a software upgrade that can be rolled out centrally. The drawback is having to wait for the GPRS handset manufacturers to bring product to market in sufficient volume to cater for a widespread commercial and consumer uptake of the product. But this will happen this year.

The two new things that an operator has to add to move to GPRS are the switching centre, which has to recognise the difference between a GPRS call and a GSM call. It routes the GPRS call to a GPRS serving node, which registers the user for the applications they have signed up for. You need some firmware in the towers but not much. This is the big difference with UMTS, or 3G. Operators are in for a huge expense with 3G, since it requires far higher densities of base stations.

With a GSM connection, you are allocated a time slot and whether you use the slot to download data or not, you get charged for it. With GPRS there are eight possible channels, each with eight time slots (though no operators are planning to run the maximum number yet since the upgrade costs to the network would be steep). The network allocates time slots dynamically to devices and one device can have multiple time slots allocated to it if there is a lot of data to be transmitted.

The really smart thing about GPRS though is the ‘always on’ status. Each device registers with the network when it is switched on, but until it actually starts to use a bearer time slot it incurs no fees. The network knows in which cell the device is but the system is idle until the user initiates an upload or a download. There is a separate control channel that communicates with the device at periodic intervals, but no cost is associated with this channel. This opens up a whole raft of new consumer and corporate applications, and the possibilities are only just beginning to be explored.”

… but hurdles hold back applications

Stuart Park, senior consultant, Real Time Engineering Telecoms Division

“There has been a lot of disappointment with WAP as a wireless bearer technology for corporate applications. But, in my view, GPRS is a lot harder right now to build a business case on. The near total unavailability of GPRS enabled handsets is just the most obvious barrier. In mid May I tried to get a GPRS connection in two separate locations. Both times I was unsuccessful, probably because the network is given over to voice traffic!

Our advice to corporate applications developers right now, is that if you can think of a good corporate application that can function inside the 9.6Kbps GSM data rates, then great, go for it. As higher data access speeds become available with GPRS, your application will work even better. But if you are trying to convince your corporate client to go for a whiz-bang new application that needs 40Kbps to work, then it will end in tears. You are going to have to wait until at least a year to see if this kind of connectivity is a feasible proposition.

However, this is no bad thing. There is no way, as a developer, that you want to give someone in the field the ability to pull megabytes of data out of a core corporate database. There isn’t a mobile phone in the world that can cope with data storage on this scale. What you want to do is to concentrate on key items of information. Messages like ‘Bloggs & Co, over credit limit, no sale allowed’, convey valuable information to a sales rep about to call on Bloggs & Co, and this kind of application can be written right now, over GSM.

For companies who want faster data transfer rates today, I recommend the High Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD) network run by Orange, rather than any GPRS network. Each 28.8Kbps HSCSD channel is a dedicated channel, with a steady, guaranteed 28.8Kpbs throughput. Today, and probably for some time to come, this is the best high speed wireless data link available.”

Secure ways to shop on the move

Paul McCarthy, managing director, Brokat Technologies

“At Brokat we began by providing Internet banking solutions to the European market. We built the Smile Internet bank for the Co-op, for example. We saw the potential of mobile commerce, and we added a mobile payment system to our portfolio, called Payment Works. The big stumbling block to mobile commerce has been developing secure mobile transaction and payment systems that had the confidence of the public and the banks, and this is where we have addressed our efforts.

The mobile device is ideally suited to provide consumers with multiple ways of paying for items. It is relatively simple, for example, for an operator to allow a user to put minor items, such as movie tickets or a restaurant meal on their mobile bill. The user will probably want to put larger items on their credit card. We solve this by having the mobile operator install Payment Works on his server infrastructure. Merchants who sign up with the operator get the Merchant component on their site.

This allows the operator to offer the merchant access to millions of subscribers who are then equipped to shop direct from their mobile phones in a secure, simple way. The cost of the sale is reduced, marketing costs are reduced and the business can be expanded pan European or even for global roaming if the operator wants that.

The operators will want discounted rates from the merchant to provide a compelling sales proposition to their customer base – otherwise why use the mobile? The telcos benefit from encouraging consumers to use more air time and they take a margin on all transactions, which helps them to offset the huge costs of their 3G licences. The consumer gets secure access to a range of shopping services, from the trivial to big ticket items.

We also see very strong B2B implementations using secure mobile payments. An SME, for example, can give each of its staff a purchasing authorisation number and a spending limit. You can set up a deal with the mobile operator to buy all your stationary at discounted prices. Another application is based on the fact that we can add digital signatures right now as an option in the payment software which facilitate corporate cash management. A business can sign off payments to suppliers working from a list on their PC. When you want to send these for payment to the bank, the bank responds with an SMS message to your mobile phone with a pin number, backed with an electronic signature. You send the authorisation back to the bank and the two elements are tied together. In the past, this kind of payment was done using a PIN TAG (transaction authorisation number), input for each item on the payment list. Now you can do it in real time from your mobile phone, which also doubles as a secure ID smart card. You need both the PC and the mobile phone to make the payments, which adds an extra layer of security. We have a £10.5m contract with Vodafone at present plus contracts with T Motion (Germany’s One2One) and Siemens. There is real business being written in this space right now.”

WAP set to show its potential

Steve Kennedy, head of technology futures, Thus

“We have been running a WAP service for a year now to support our Demon Internet brand. We have our own WAP gateway and we are enhancing that service for corporate hosting solutions. WAP was mistakenly hyped as the mobile Internet, when it is actually very unsatisfying as a web browsing platform. What it is good at is anywhere access to short data messages, and this is ideally suited to the SME market or to provide access to large corporate Intranets and extranets.

We are not excited as yet by GPRS. In theory it provides a faster bearer service than GSM. However, GPRS users share the capacity of each cell. Try to make a GPRS call in central London on a Friday afternoon, for example, and the GSM data rate will start to look really fast!

We will see the market develop a whole range of purpose written WAP clients. These could be mail applications, which convert the heavy duty Internet protocols to lightweight WAP protocols. The big limitation at present is the very low CPU power and tiny memory of mobile phones. As PDAs become wireless enabled, the potential for WAP grows substantially. Mobile networks other than Orange’s HSCSD will be contention based for a long time to come, which makes the bandwidth they offer inherently unreliable. In this environment, WAP has a great deal to offer. It is designed to stuff efficient, economic quantities of data over the air, in binary protocol form.

Packet based systems using SMPT, the mail protocol, for example, are anything but efficient. A two way conversation goes on all the time between the originating server and the device.

Another important fact is that Oftel ruled in mid-May that all mobile operators must offer 10p per minute WAP connectivity to any other operator that wants to run a gateway to their mobile network. This means that BT Cellnet can’t give a preferential rating for its Genie service without giving the same rate to Thus. WAP services will be nationwide across operators’ networks. Corporates will want to put web hosting and secure WAP access on their agendas through 2001.”

Software to put the user in control

Annmarie Duffy, wireless and mobility marketing manager, Microsoft

“Up until two years ago, our focus was the PC. The Microsoft vision was a PC on every desk and in every home. In 1999, recognising the advancement made in mobile devices and mobile networks, Microsoft’s strategy changed to embrace the idea of anytime anywhere data access. We recognised that it was important to provide great software for the emerging range of mobile devices and we moved quickly to provide this.

The Sony Z5, for example, comes with Microsoft Mobile Explorer, the first dual WAP and HTML micro browser. And we have been doing a lot of work on PDAs. Last April we released our Pocket PC operating system and applications suite, based on Windows CE version 3. The most obvious application here is e-mail, and with faster bearer services, users are going to want to open e-mail attachments on their wirelessly enabled PDAs. Pocket Word, Excel and Powerpoint will allow users to open attachments on the move.

Dresdner Bank, for example, chose the Pocket PC to roll out to all their staff. They can carry business information with them to clients in Excel spreadsheets. They can access the corporate Internet securely and view their line of business applications. They can also provide their high net worth individual clients with PDAs running Pocket PC, such as the Compaq iPAQ, with a GPRS jacket, which will give those individuals real time mobile access to their own investment portfolios.

When we launched Office XP we launched Outlook Mobile Manager at the same time. This is an additional software package that sits on top of Outlook and sends information to mobile devices. With it, users’ e-mails can be sent direct from their desktop PC Outlook in-tray to their mobile devices. And we have some clever software on Outlook Mobile Manager, called Intellishrink, which reduces mobile messages down to 160 character SMS messages. The aim is to put the user in control of their mobile messaging.

Joint venture aims to seize the initiative

John Curtiss, CEO, Terenci

“Terenci is a 30m euro joint venture set up by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young and Vodafone, to combine the latter’s operational expertise in running wireless voice and data networks with the former’s solution building business.

It was clear to both companies that the launch of GPRS wireless services would provide a wireless data platform that corporates could use in innovative ways to drive efficiencies and to generate new ways of working with mobile employees. The newness of the whole mobile data applications space offers real opportunities for a company of scale to gain market leadership supplying solutions in this arena. No consultancy or systems integrator can yet point to a deep record in the combined field of wireless operations and systems integration. With the formation of a substantial joint venture, Vodafone and CGE&Y are ideally placed to address this market.”

High speed network leads the way

Mike Crawshaw, head of Orange consulting group

At Orange, we have the UK’s only guaranteed 28.8kbps wireless data network. Known as HSCSD, or High Speed Circuit Switched Data, this provides subscribers with a dedicated 28.8Kbps channel that is not impacted by contention with other subscribers. From £5.00 per month per employee, it opens the way to a whole range of applications that you could never hope to do with current or foreseeable GPRS based technologies.

For example, live video streaming is just not feasible with GPRS because of the variable connection speeds. We have worked very closely with Strathclyde University, which has pioneered excellent video compression algorithms, which provide very good wireless video telephony on HSCSD. Today we have a number of photo journalists who use our HSCSD channels to shift photo files direct from the field to the photo editor’s desk. Companies who need to send parts lists or wiring diagrams to field engineers will find it just as useful.

This said, we do not see HSCSD as a competitor to GPRS, but rather as a complementary technology, and we will be launching a GPRS service as and when the handset market and the technology stabilises. We see corporates providing some of their executives with both an HSCSD and a GPRS card for their Compaq iPaq handhelds, for example. We are very active right now in talking to corporates, together with our business partners such as Logica, to explore solutions that will bring substantial benefits for our corporate clients.”

Related reading

aidan-brennan kpmg