3G mobile revolution

by Admiral Group

Mobile phones offering cheaper and higher speed access to services such as the Internet for both business users and consumers are now available.

The massive growth of mobile users seen in the 1990s is maturing and a host of new, wireless-based applications are emerging. With digital GSM, the second generation (2G) of mobile technology, well established, the third generation (3G) of high speed, Internet communications to all manner of portable devices now lies before us. Around 24 million people in the UK were estimated to have mobiles in 2002, with around 40 million active accounts, some people having two accounts - one for work and one for private use.

Mobiles with everything

This large customer base will be the target of a range of new services. Digital data services are well known to the business community, but the logjam for the public is how to increase the speed and lower the cost at which data can be handled by mobiles. To fulfil this need the telecommunications industry has developed a range of new mobile technology and applications, offering mobile Internet browsers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) that are intended to transmit and receive video. Soon we will wonder how we coped with today's slow speeds and limited mobile data traffic. 

The low cost way of sending and receiving text messages on mobiles via SMS is now a popular "enabler" for field force applications, and only needs a PC and a clutch of mobile handsets to get started. The popularity of SMS also owes much to its reliability. It works as a "store and forward" mechanism, effectively guaranteeing the delivery of messages, which can also be accessed when someone switches on a mobile after being out of range. In addition, it can also be combined with other technologies to create a complete mobile solution in markets such as transportation and distribution.

The size of most mobile phone screens has been a limiting factor, but products such as Nokia's well-established Communicator, combining phone and PDA, have helped overcome viewing difficulties. Other PDAs, such as the Psion range or 3Com's latest Palm Pilots, can link cordlessly to a mobile phone via an infrared port or wireless ‘Bluetooth’ technology, so they become portable message centres.

Tracking technologies

The majority of us are familiar with the global positioning system (GPS) receiver, which helps pinpoint geographical location by satellite. This technology can also be used to feed back route details to HQ via SMS, enabling a vehicle driver to open a voice channel. In-cab terminals can handle all this, plus the printing out of vital proof of delivery notes, and faxing of a signature so that an invoice can be raised. Other uses include automatically monitoring the temperature of refrigerated trucks and triggering alarm messages. Small firms need no longer be limited by the cost of specialist radio networks, but can use public networks. Another application attracting a lot of interest is mobile location of individuals, not just tracking a vehicle consignment. The mobile network can work out a "fix" on someone's location using suitable handsets. A user looking for a hotel room, for example, could send an SMS message with their location to a control centre, which can then send back details of the nearest company-approved hotel. Other applications, such as Traffic-master and AA Personal Roadwatch traffic information service, are already in extensive use.

More for less

Many new applications on existing mobile phones have been restricted by the lack of sufficient "bandwidth" capacity to carry large amounts of data. Full Internet pages, with colour and pictures, have a very large data content, and it has been costly and slow to receive them by mobile phone. The next thrust is remote access for large amounts of data for the general public. Also, with increasing numbers of professionals working away from base (and many now don't have any fixed desk), there is an urgent need for reliable communications for accessing the same levels of information enjoyed by office-based colleagues. Being able to access the latest sales figures, marketing "book", e-mails, spreadsheets and other databases while on the move makes flexible working so much easier and allows salespeople to make a complex enquiry about the configuration of an order while the customer looks on. New software is improving the service, for example, to ensure automatic resumption of data traffic over mobile when a connection is broken. Mobiles can also be part of the corporate phone system, so you can be reached through a single phone number wherever you are. Poor coverage is the bane of mobile users. So, networks are expanding base stations for weak areas and boosting capacity to cope with overload in dense user areas. Micro-base stations can be found inside buildings to guarantee indoor reception. The latest major project is a London Underground system to allow passengers to use their mobiles.

Little packets

The next few years will see the rollout of new services that will radically change the picture of mobile data and information services. They will mirror, but also have to compete and liaise with, the changes that have taken place on cable. These are already coming on stream through the "copper pair" wires (the fixed phone lines) for the home and business, namely the delivery of Internet-style communications and video on demand. In the mobile context, the essential difference is that data is sent in "packets" only when required, allowing a connection to be available but not permanently enabled. An enhancement to some GSM networks is General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). This will give users, armed with a new generation of terminals, a much faster route to mobile data services, and will also allow a differential charging regime. A remote worker could log on to an office network in the morning on his or her mobile, and then automatically receive data and e-mails throughout the day, charged by the amount of data sent and received, rather than by time connected.

Tailor-made smartphones

Another major growth area is Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). This emerging standard tailors information on the Internet for access on mobile devices, and is already available for existing GSM networks using new "smartphone" handsets with larger screens. This can already handle applications such as improved on-line banking or travel information. WAP will come into its own with the faster speeds offered by GPRS, which itself is an interim step on the way to the "third generation" (3G) of mobile technology (GPRS has been dubbed 2.5G). For example, the technologies used in both GPRS and 3G offer a much more efficient way of using "radio space" than existing systems. As people get used to services such as unified messaging, (where all voicemails, e-mails and faxes can be accessed in one "mailbox"), on-line banking, electronic cash and Internet shopping, they will want to do all this wherever they are.

But when will it happen? The first 3G networks have been operating in Japan since 2000 and began commercial roll-out by ‘3’ in the UK in mid - 2003, but mass take-up in UK markets isn't expected until 2005. The door to the mass market for high-speed home Internet and digital TV is just opening. New mobile services will have to be keenly priced to compete and many users will need to be persuaded to bear the cost of upgrading to more powerful plethora of new portable terminals which will be competing to win market share on price and technology capacity. The challenge for the telecoms industry is to help people "interwork" seamlessly between fixed and mobile technologies. As you walk through your front door, your portable communicator may switch to the communications base of your TV set-top box or the terminal in your kitchen fridge door. The mobile videophone is here and spreading.

Reviewed January 2011

last updated : 21/01/2011

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