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banner Monday, 3 September, 2001, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
Stuck in the mobile with you
Graphic BBC
Mobile phone operators are keen to keep control of what you do with your handset, writes BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Imagine for a moment that your mobile phone is a car, and your network is the roads you can drive it along.

Currently, even those with the newest models cannot go faster than 10 mph because the networks cannot carry data very fast. It is like living in a neighbourhood of Ferrari owners who have to drive behind a man waving a red flag.

By contrast, those using the internet via a fixed telephone line can zip anywhere and everywhere they want, some at ludicrously high speeds.

Things are slowly changing, of course. The speed limit on the mobile phone roads is steadily being raised and the flashest handsets should soon get a run.

Money, money, money

However, at the same time, the network of roads available is also shrinking. So although you will eventually be able to travel at high speed, it will only be to the end of the road and back. Oh, and you'll also only be able to use certain petrol stations, car repair and cleaning services, roadside restaurants and the like.

Ferrari 260 Modena AP
Who wants to drive a Ferrari at 10 mph?
Whereas fixed-line net users enjoy a huge amount of freedom - there is no restriction on which websites are viewed - the mobile service providers want to corral their users into network neighbourhoods that are carefully controlled. And there is one very simple reason for this: money.

Mobile phone companies control almost everything you can do with your handset. They want to extend that control because they are worried that the technology to boost the data handling capacity of their networks will mean customers will stop using branded services and plump for the free ones available on the web.

"The operators want to be the gatekeepers," says Raul Chamorro, head of phone mapping firm Batmap. If operators give customers too much freedom to roam, they could turn from being sellers of services into mere shippers of bits, which is far less lucrative.

The Mitsubishi Trium Monda Mitsubishi
The latest models now have added GPRS
"The mobile operators don't want you to reach any services via the web," says Gilles Babinet, chief executive of European phone music service Musiwap. This is largely because they don't know how to charge people for these services and they don't want their customers doing anything that they can't charge for.

"If you want to control them, you have to bill them," he says. Unfortunately, on the net everyone expects to get what they want for nothing.

The General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) currently offered by Cellnet and Vodafone, and soon by Orange, is a case in point.

GPRS boosts the data handling ability of a mobile phone network, irrespective of the kind of data being shipping around. As long as it is in packet form, it will ship it anywhere.

However, both Cellnet and Vodafone are only letting consumers use GPRS to boost the speed at which they can look at Wap sites. Typically these are the sites the operators want you to look at, listed in the bookmarks on your phone. If you want to surf the net or send e-mail, you have to use the regular network, which is astoundingly slow.

Service charge

GPRS works at speeds up to 171.2 kilobits a second, while the regular network trundles along at 9.6kbps.

One reason for this separation of services is because the two are charged for differently. Typically mobile subscribers pay by the second. This is because there is an obvious start and end point to a phone call.

But if your phone is receiving bits of data every now and again, some of which could be part of a voice call and some an e-mail, there's no recognisable cut-off that can be used to calibrate your bill. All the networks are currently wrestling with ways to charge for services on packet networks. Once third-generation networks arrive, all of them will be packet-based.

Ben Wood, senior analyst at the technology consultancy Gartner Group, says the mobile phone operators have a real opportunity to make their connection with the customer count.

"Phones are no longer just about communication now they are competing for people's disposable income and time."

But mobile phone firms have one crucial advantage over dot.coms, he says.

"The web-based model gives everything away for free but people are used to paying for everything on their mobile phone."

So in the future, ask not for whom the phone tolls, the toll charge is for thee.

See also:

18 May 01 | Business
BT launches GPRS phones
22 Mar 01 | Business
Orange sets date for mobile upgrade
18 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Gadgets are growing up
17 Apr 01 | Business
Vodafone passes 3G 'milestone'
11 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
3G talk gets cheaper
31 May 01 | Business
Vodafone launches 2.5G price war
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