A new era will dawn on mobile communications

The future is on the move, and Europe needs to catch up. By Ian Fried
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The Independent Culture
EUROPEANS CAN only look on enviously as Americans plunk their laptops down anywhere and surf the Internet. By attaching wireless modems to their notebooks, Internet access and mobility need no longer be mutually exclusive.

In Europe, we are lagging seriously behind, being limited to connecting laptops through mobile phones which provide such slow connections that they are only suitable for rudimentary operations. Europeans are, however, promised something that's being touted as the next big thing in mobile telecommunications, the so-called "Third Generation". The First Generation was characterised by analogue cellphones, the Second Generation by GSM and other digital phones. The Third Generation will be a complex digital system known as the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS).

The Government plans to hold auctions for the right to carry out trials for UMTS next year. The public will be able to use it from around 2002, and it will become widespread by 2005. And widespread it will have to become if there is ever to be a return on the large investment needed to bring UMTS to life. The Third Generation Mobile Group, which has been advising the Department of Trade and Industry, says eight million users are required to support the necessary investment by manufacturers of UMTS terminals, growing to at least 60 million within 10 years. For this sort of growth, it will have to be compelling.

And it will be says, Martin Hills, director of technology at Ericsson, the mobile phone company. "The killer application for UMTS, the reason that we are all going to want it, is data, and what will drive it is the increasing penetration of the Internet. UMTS and mobile data will become part of the environment, with middleware, the devices that transmit and receive data, providing faster and faster access. The mind boggles at all possible devices. Some of these might include Personal Digital Assistants, which act as electronic diaries and address books and which will have in-built phones. However, UMTS will be especially useful for sending pictures and video.

Ukko Lappalainen, head of marketing and business development, new radio systems at Nokia says the next stage in mobile communications will be an era of personal multimedia. He predicts that the way we communicate in our everyday life will be enhanced: voice mail and e-mail will be transformed into mobile multimedia mail. We will be able to send electronic postcards with embedded pictures and video clips. There will be mobile Internet and a variety of forms of "infotainment"and commerce.

All the mobile phone networks are in the running for a licence to operate UMTS services. David Massey of Cellnet, the mobile phone service provider, says that Cellnet already has the infrastructure with its national network of antennae. "The migration from GSM to UMTS will be on the same scale as from analogue to GSM," Massey says. As for the services Cellnet might offer, he says: "A lot of the devices for UMTS will be handheld, including smart cards which will hold e-cash, electronic money."

Massey says Cellnet is in a good position to do this because of its existing relationship with Barclaycard, which allows some Cellnet customers to check their card balances and bank accounts from a screen on specially adapted Cellnet phones. Electronic ticketing will also be able to be done via the phone, allowing tickets to be booked and reserved and then checked electronically when entering an event.

Questions have been raised, however, about whether all this will start on time. The mobile phone operators have, through one of their groups, the Mobile Data Association, been highly critical of the Government's plan to auction the right to run UMTS services.

The MDA has called this a "tax on the mobile data industry" and has indicated that it may limit the competitiveness of British industry and, by implication, the amount of money that might be invested in a UMTS infrastructure.

Massey says that as soon as Cellnet finds out what the Government's bid procedure will be, it will be right there and ready to make the investment in the new infrastructure. Meanwhile, we, the public, will have to put up with a long wait before we can rush out and buy video cellphones.