Many of us are familiar with the WAP (wireless application protocol) feature incorporated into a number of recent mobile phones, which makes them capable of exchanging e-mail and visiting some Internet sites. WAP has many limitations, chief among them being that it can use only those small parts of the Internet specifically designed for this protocol.
GPRS is a packet-switched technology, similar to the Internet itself. This means that data transfers are broken up into many small sections, called packets, which each bear an address and wind their way independently to their destination, where they are reassembled. This system is much more efficient than WAP, in which each Internet connection requires a dedicated line that is denied to other users, even when no data is moving on it. Since it can only use one line, WAP is restricted to a maximum speed of 9.6Kbps.
By using multiple packets and sharing multiple lines, GPRS technology can overcome these limitations and allow more users to move more data more quickly. It also enables true Internet data transfer that isn't just limited to WAP services. Telstra says this service will enable users to receive data at up to 40Kbps, and send it at up to 20Kbps by the end of the year.
The Motorola Timeport P7389i is one of the first phones in Australia to use this new service. It's a fairly conventional looking piece of gear, the important differences being inside. It's capable of browsing WAP Web sites, which have been specially designed to be legible on the tiny screens of mobile phones. It can send and receive e-mail, exchange text by SMS (short message service), access chat zones and, of course, make phone calls.
In use, GPRS proved fairly reliable in the Sydney metropolitan area, more so than the WAP phone tested a few months earlier. This is probably due to the improved technology of GPRS, though it's difficult to be sure because of differences in the phones. There was one minor but persistent bug: at the beginning of about half of the GPRS data sessions, the phone would immediately display a "busy" error message, yet would connect on the second attempt. Given the way GPRS works and the small number of users, this shouldn't happen. However, once established, the GPRS connection worked in areas where the older WAP system had dropped out.
One of the coolest things about GPRS is the potential to use a mobile phone as a portable modem for your laptop or PDA, giving you the ability to use the Internet on the move. Motorola provides GPRS Wizard software for this purpose.
Overall, this system shows considerable promise, but like all new technologies, it still has some minor bugs - which probably won't take long to iron out.
Telstra MobileNet GPRS
Price: 22cents per session plus 2.2cents per kilobyte, 50 per cent discount above 200KBPhone: 13 1800; URL: www.telstra.com.au.
Motorola Timeport P7389i
Price: $649; Phone: 1800 667 788; URL: www.motorola.com.au