At one time, mobile datacoms meant battery powered modems for notebook users. But over the past 12 months, GSM digital cellular technology has arrived with a vengeance. Vodafone has already hit the one million subscriber mark with its GSM network, and Cellnet is not far behind.
One-2-One and Orange are also selling well through mobile phone dealers, as a glance through the small ads of any newspaper will confirm. And alongside these four networks is the additional facility of being able to move data around. The technology goes by the rather lacklustre name of GSM data, although its profit potential to the channel is far from uninspiring.
GSM data works because its underlying network infrastructure is digital.
All GSM handsets, whether they operate at 900MHz, like Cellnet and Vodafone's networks, or at 1,800MHz like One-2-One or Orange, work on the same principle: the handset's electronics have more processing power than a 66MHz Pentium chip set. That's why radios and phones start buzzing whenever an active GSM phone is within a few feet.
All GSM handsets can digitise the user's voice. As the electronics of the GSM phone are configured only for the human voice, music on hold sounds even worse on GSM than on a landline. It's also bad news for analogue modems, because the sampling rates are all wrong.
But by the simple expedient of bypassing the analogue-to-digital electronics of the GSM handset and simply feeding the correctly formatted data into the phone for transmission across the airwaves, data channels of up to 9,600bps can be supported.
Perhaps more important, each GSM handset squirts all its data, both compressed and at very high speeds, across GSM radio channels, so up to eight calls can occupy a single radio channel at once. This has implications for mobile data since, some time next year, several of the UK's GSM networks will be able to multiplex up to all eight of these channels to give an ISDN-like 64,000bps channel.
Despite what the four GSM operators would have the industry think, their development is still at an early stage. In the next few years it is almost certain we will see videoconferencing across GSM links, as well as multimedia as good as that seen on most Lan desktops.
This will be thanks to improvements being made in digital compression, coupled with the impending ability to aggregate several 9,600bps data channels together.
You might think that Cellnet and Vodafone will rob punters blind with their charges for aggregated data channels over GSM. Unfortunately for the cellular operators, other mobile telecoms technology is coming up in the fast lane.
Over the next few years, at least three satellite phone/ mobile data companies will offer satellite-based global communications. A fourth company, Skysat, is already talking about 64,000bps data links into the Internet at 10 cents a minute, with calls routed to and from automated airships 70,000 feet up in the air.
Fantasy? Certainly not. The stakes are vast, simply because wireless datacoms bypasses the local telecoms loop that BT, and before that the Post Office, have lashed subscribers' wallets with for the past 100 years.
Data bandwidths on GSM data will start to come down in price as Cellnet, Vodafone, One-2-One and Orange realise that, in the words of the Vodafone advert on television, they are 'not alone'.
While some pretty exciting developments are just around the corner for the savvy telecoms dealer, some pretty exciting kit is available now in the channel, thanks to the actions of vendors, like Portable Add-Ons, Psion Dacom and others.
Nokia started the ball rolling in the GSM data arena roughly two years ago when it started shipping the GSM data card, a u499 add-on for the ubiquitous Nokia 21xx series of digital mobiles.
The Nokia 21xx series is now available for all four networks, but pricing on the data card is around u300, which is still way too high for most users.
Fortunately for the channel, other vendors have seen fit to ship products that undercut the Nokia data card, as well adding multi-functionality to the mix. The stakes are so high in the game that one innovative UK company, Communicate, was snapped up by Motorola for several million pounds earlier this year.
Motorola Communicate's GSM PCMCIA card modems, known as the Atlas series, offer high-speed communications with the promise of data compression.
This is a feature rarely implemented effectively on GSM data cards.
Currently there are three Atlas modems. All support 9,600bps across GSM data links, as well as, optionally, either 14,400bps or 28,800bps across analogue (landline) modem links. Each of these modems supports Communicate's digital data fast technology. This is a GSM-specific version of the V.42bis error correction and data compression system, modified by elements of the Microcom network protocol Class 5 error correction and data compression system.
Although V.42bis includes MNP Class 4 elements, it is the data compression feature of MNP Class 5 that gives DDF the ability to compress up to 36,000bps data channels down to the 9,600bps data channel available across GSM data links.
According to Colin Aitken, Communicate sales and marketing director, both the Atlas cards have been designed for the mobile warrior. They offer users data capabilities over both wireline and wireless networks, working with Motorola's 8400 and 8700 series of GSM phones.
Pricing on the Atlas card in its basic GSM version is u279, while a 14,400bps analogue modem with GSM data features costs u349. The full specification V.34 analogue GSM data card costs u449. Further details can be found on Communicate's Web site at www.communicate.co.uk.
The most recent addition to the multi-function GSM modem card stable is the updated Gold Card series from Psion Dacom. The range now includes Ethernet connectivity with existing analogue modem and GSM data facilities.
The cards are unique in the market, according to Dave Curl, marketing manager for the Milton Keynes company, and competitively priced.
The cards were launched last month and sources suggest that it will be early next year before any other vendor can supply a similar tri-function PCMCIA card.
Psion Dacom is actually billing the new Gold Cards as four-function, including fax data as a fourth facility.
Known as the Gold Card Network V34+ Fax+ Ethernet+ GSM, the card supports data speeds to the impending V.34x 33,600bps standard, fax to 14,400bps, Ethernet to 10Mbps and GSM data to 9,600bps.
Michelle Rennie, Psion Dacom's sales and marketing director, claims that, in a fiercely competitive market, these products are both timely and aggressively priced. 'We believe that multi-function cards represent the future of PC Card technologies,' she says.
The new Gold Card Network card sells for u399. Without the GSM facility, it sells for u319. The entry-level Ethernet-only card sells for u119.
Further details of the Gold Card series can be found on Psion Dacom's Web site at www.psiondacom.com.
Hayes has been shipping a u139 upgrade for its Optima PCMCIA modems, allowing the devices to support data transfer across GSM networks at the standard speed of 9,600bps.
In common with other vendors supplying GSM data card modems, the Hayes variant is limited to the Alcatel or Panasonic 350/400/500 series - the same series of GSM handsets to which Psion Dacom is limiting its Gold Card series. Support for other cellular handsets from Hayes and Psion Dacom is imminent.
Hayes' Optima PCMCIA up-grade kit comes with a handset-specific cable which links the PCMCIA card to the handset. Versions of the kit for Nokia, Ericsson, Sony and several other GSM handsets are expected around the turn of the year.
The Hayes kit is also claimed to be future-proof, as it supports the B-ISDN system. This is a mobile variant of the integrated service digital network system found on digital landline circuits. B-ISDN supports the aggregation of several GSM data 'channels' to create a high bandwidth mobile communications link. Although no GSM network currently supports the aggregate channel system, it is on the drawing board for introduction next year.
Jeremy Butt, Hayes general manager for Europe, says the kits are the modem company's response to the increasing demand for mobile datacoms.
He predicts that multi-environment datacoms will soon become a necessity for all mobile computer users.
'The need for connectivity on the road via GSM mobile phones is becoming imperative. Mobile data communications via GSM offer users the ability to send and receive data and faxes from their portable computer, wherever they are, even when there is no telephone socket nearby,' he said.
Further details of Hayes products can be found on the Web at www.hayes.co.uk.
At Networks 96, Nigel Parry, MD of Portable Add-Ons predicted: 'While single function cards are selling well, I think you will see a significant number of combination cards gaining popularity this year.'
Portable Add-Ons' GSM data card offering sells for u349 and supports 9,600bps GSM data and up to 33,600bps analogue data. Like the Hayes and Psion Dacom cards, the Portable Add-Ons Freespirit modem supports the Panasonic G350/400 and 500 series, and in addition the Alcatel GC series of handsets.
With such a plethora of PCMCIA modems available in the channel, pricing is cutthroat, with vendors seeking to gain market share at the expense of profitability. Margins are still healthy at the dealer's end of town, however, so the canny reseller can negotiate some good prices.
But where is the GSM data market going in the medium term? In October, analyst Ovum released a report on the technology entitled Data over GSM: Market Development. It said digital cellular networks, and, almost certainly the channel, are likely to be caught hopping by a surge in demand for data over GSM services. As many as three million users are expected in Europe by the end of the decade. Ovum predicts that the take-up for mobile data over GSM will be massive. For this to happen, however, it says that the GSM carriers must educate users about the potential benefits of cellular data and position the technology as offering value for money.
To compile the report, Ovum polled more than 1,200 users of portable PCs in France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Spain and the UK between April and August.
According to Martin Garner, a management consultant with Ovum, people who use cellular data already generally like it, and thus generate significant amounts of data traffic.
'But managing expectations will be vital for suppliers since users are strongly influenced by their experience of fixed network data services, where costs are falling and data rates are increasing,' he says.
Garner believes that cellular data suppliers need to address the concerns of users and should be careful not to hype their products and services.
Ovum's report notes a lack of perceived need for data over GSM among potential users. Coupled with high ongoing costs, this acts as a barrier to increasing mobile data usage. Other restricting factors, the report says, include the purchase price of the equipment, network coverage, corporate policy and the perceptions of network service quality.
According to Ovum, the option of data over GSM will be greatest within the market for portable PCs, although the existence of cellular data will not drive growth in the portable PC market much before the end of the decade.
According to the report, the market for cellular data will be dependent on the penetration of portable computers, the main drivers being flexible work patterns, contactability and time savings.
'There is no killer application for cellular data in the short term.
Cellular data is an extension of users' existing ways of working and most will use a number of different applications at different times,' Garner says.
Ovum says there are currently 300,000 users of GSM services. The report predicts that barriers to market entry will decline significantly and competition will combine with greater user awareness to make mobile data increasingly acceptable to a wider market.
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