Q. What is GPRS?
A. It stands for General Packet Radio Service. It’s basically a souped-up version of the GSM standard that normal phones use to make them carry data more effectively. The big difference is that in theory, it’s an ‘always-on’ connection. So you can download data at any time, rather than waiting for 30 seconds to dial up as you would with a straight GSM call.

Q. General, Radio, Service. Fair enough. What about the packet bit?
A. If you make a data connection over GSM, it is circuit switched – you set up a circuit which will carry your data and no-one else’s. You pay for the length of time that circuit is open. With packet switching, you share the same network as everyone else. You only pay for the amount of data you send and the available bandwidth is used more efficiently.

New mobile service? Weren’t there meant to be controversial auctions and stuff?
A. GPRS uses the same frequency as today’s GSM phones, so there was no need to bankrupt the industry with a spectrum auction. In fact it’s so similar to GSM that the only way to spot a GPRS handset is by the “GPRS” sticker on the front.

Q. More acronyms? Yawn…
A. It’s not the most inspiring moniker on earth, but GPRS ought to enable some groovy services eventually. The best of them will probably be messaging, and wireless internet access, but it should in theory be able to handle music downloading and possibly even video. For the moment though, the only service available is WAP over GPRS. So while it’s slightly faster and cheaper, you’re still stuck with a black and white screen the size of a postage stamp.

Q. Where’s the catch?
A. Like any telco project, GPRS was very late to market, and the version we’ve tried didn’t work all that well. It’s meant to be ‘always-on’ but the network often wasn’t available. There aren’t many handsets around either and it’s slower than expected. It was meant to give data speeds over 100Kbps, but you’d be lucky to get more than 20Kpbs.

How are they going to charge for this?
Good question. Mobile networks like their prices complex, and they’re having a field day with data. How about: first megabyte free with subscription each month, next three meg at 1.5p per kilobyte, half that price thereafter… you get the idea.

Q. Isn’t that what 3G was meant to do?
A. GPRS is often referred to as 2.5G – a bridging technology between second and third generation services. Most of the 3G data services like m-commerce, email and internet browsing will already work on GPRS, with 3G providing more bandwidth, if and when it comes along. Analysts say that anyone wanting to make money with 3G services should get them up and running on GPRS networks.

Q. Won’t GPRS be obsolete quite soon?.
A. Back in the days when everyone thought we would all be watching football on 3G handsets by 2001, people were wondering what the point of GPRS handsets would be. No-one’s even pretending that 3G will be with us before September 2002, and it won’t be widespread and affordable for another year or two. So GPRS will be with us for a long, long time to come.

Essential Links
Orange to launch GPRS on time
Vodafone goes head-to-head with BT on GPRS
GPRS: A donkey on speed is still a donkey
GPRS is here, but it’s late and it doesn’t really work
BT GPRS data services hit by glitches

External Links
Official introduction to GPRS
Ericsson gives the lowdown on GPRS
Nokia talks GPRS