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Nikkei Net

Mobile Operators in Race for GPRS Roll-Out

Local mobile phone operators are racing to commercially launch general packet radio service (GPRS) networks by 2001, in a bid to gain first-mover advantage of the lucrative mobile-commerce pie.

Five operators, Time dotCom Bhd, Maxis Communications Bhd, Celcom (M) Sdn Bhd, Telekom Cellular Sdn Bhd and DiGi Telecommunications Bhd, have announced trials between September and December.

Time dotCom has set an ambitious target to roll-out by December and is investing about US$10 million to set up the network. Managing director Halim Saad said the company plans to become a leader in offering high-speed data access for mobile Internet users. "We believe we have the advantage since we have ample bandwidth on our trunk network and a 25MHz spectrum on our cellular system to support growing demand," Halim said.

Market Demand

The country's largest mobile operator, Celcom, with a subscriber base of 1.2 million, is spending a similar amount to roll out by the second quarter of 2001. TRI/Celcom Group vice-president Bistamam Ramli said that if the market demands it, the company may launch even sooner. Celcom will begin a six-month trial this month in selected high-data traffic areas in the Klang Valley.

Maxis, Telekom and DiGi will also be conducting trials by year-end with similar roll-out schedules in 2001.

GPRS, billed as a second-generation plus or 2G+ technology, is expected to give the much-hyped Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) services a kick start. Current WAP offerings on 2G platforms have been found wanting with glacial access speeds of only 9.6 kbps.

GPRS offers "always on" data rates of 115 kbps and is regarded as a natural migration path in the run-up to third-generation (3G) platforms with promised speeds of 384 kbps to 2 Mbps by 2002.

The GPRS announcements come in the wake of a major push by local operators of WAP-enabled services in June. Operators were subsidizing costs of phones, promoting various packages, and touting their content and applications to lure customers to buy-in to WAP.

The Malaysian government turned up the heat in August when it lifted a 14-year ruling which forced operators to charge customers a fixed 60 ringgit (US$15.8) monthly access rate. Operators are now free to lower or abolish the rates, encouraging more potential subscribers to sign on.

Celcom claims it already has chalked up 10,000 WAP customers and expects to exceed its projected 60,000 target by year-end. This despite the limited number of phone models, slow access rates and few useful applications.

Fixed-Line Left Behind

Most operators hope WAP will encourage Internet use in Malaysia as the number of mobile phone users hovers at about three million, almost double the number of fixed-line Internet users.

With an eye on the success of NTT DoCoMo Inc's i-mode service, operators are also banking on the expected explosion of mobile-commerce or m-commerce, as a variety of transactions from buying movie tickets to stocks are done via cellphones.

Andersen Consulting expects the global M-commerce market to be worth US$5.4 billion by 2003, of which 20% will be from Asia-Pacific.

Research house Ovum Pte Ltd estimated there will be 1 billion mobile subscribers by 2003, a large portion of which will use microbrowser-enabled e-commerce services, based on WAP or other technologies.

Ovum studies, however, suggest WAP services will peak by 2002 and fade gracefully off in 2003-2005 timeframe, co-inciding with the roll out of 3G services in individual countries.

by Julian Matthews, Kuala Lumpur

(October 2000 Issue, Nikkei Electronics Asia)

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