Special Report on Mobile Telecommunications: Rabbit makes its run for Telepoint sales: John Law reports on a firm pressing ahead in a market where others have failed

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AFTER the failure of three companies to make a success of the Telepoint phone concept, sceptics believe the latest Rabbit system is doomed from the outset to suffer the commercial equivalent of terminal myxomatosis.

Undaunted, Hutchison Personal Communications is pressing ahead with the launch of its quaintly-titled service.

The company remains convinced there is a niche in the market for a pocket cordless telephone which is much cheaper than a cellular system, but which can still be used in the home, the office and when you are travelling.

Having started in Greater Manchester in June, Hutchison is extending its network rapidly. By the end of the year the company hopes its distinctive bunny logo will be adorning 12,000 base stations nationwide for the benefit of 15,000-20,000 subscribers.

'Thanks to some good judgement and a little luck, we can now succeed where all three of our Telepoint competitors have failed miserably,' the HPC managing director Peter Wright said.

The Telepoint saga began in 1988 when four companies were granted licences to operate the service. After various trials, British Telecom's Phonepoint, Mercury's Callpoint and Ferranti's Zonephone systems were all withdrawn.

The fourth licensee was BYPS Communications - a consortium of Barclays Bank, Philips and Shell - which was taken over early last year by a British subsidiary of the Hong Kong telecommunications giant Hutchison Whampoa.

HPC delayed the launch of the Rabbit system and now claims it is more technologically advanced, more accessible and more affordable than its predecessors. 'The others failed because they were too expensive and were using technology which had not been perfected,' Mr Wright said.

HPC postponed the launch of its Rabbit network until the latest digital cordless technology became available. 'The result is a system which works very well,' Mr Wright said. 'The speech quality is better, there is greater mobility and it costs half the price of the proprietary equipment introduced by the others.'

The cost of a Rabbit handset and home base station is pounds 199, plus a monthly service charge of pounds 6. Calls from home are charged at the standard BT rate.

Unlike ordinary cordless phones, the Rabbit may also be used in an office equipped with a private base station and anywhere in Britain where there is a Telepoint station. Calls may also be made overseas in a growing number of countries with similar networks, such as the Netherlands, France, Hong Kong and Singapore.

HPC claims the system is a more versatile alternative to fixed or cordless home telephones and ideal for those who regularly make calls from public phoneboxes.

The cost of calls away from home are from 10p per minute off-peak and 20p peak times. 'That compares with the cost of callboxes and you enjoy greater convenience,' Mr Wright said. He claims the overall cost of ownership is only a third to a half of having a cellular system. However, he says the company is not competing directly with that market. 'We don't offer the same instant communication as a cellular system and there is no instant recall. When you are travelling you need to be within 100-200 metres of a base station to make a call and you cannot be contacted direct.'

To overcome this possible disadvantage, Rabbit offers a message service costing pounds 5.50 per month. An alerting tone on the customer's handset sounds when a caller leaves a message.

After its launch in the North, the Rabbit system will go on line in London and the South-east in October, the Midlands in November and the rest of the country by the end of the year.

Telepoint stations are being sited at shops, banks, airports and motorway service stations. HPC claims that in city centres Rabbit users should rarely be more than two or three minutes from a base station, or 15 minutes away outside urban areas.

Having spent pounds 40m on hardware for the system - a modest sum compared to the cellular operators' investment - HPC expects to add an additional 3,000 Telepoint stations to the network over the next couple of years.

(Photograph omitted)