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The waste of EDGE

Am I being dim or something, by failing to be turned on by 3G?

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The only thing 3G will really bring me is speed. I don't give a stuff about multimedia, video messaging or any of that - the only things that I could really use are the ability to download my e-mail faster or to remote-control my PC more comfortably.

Even then, 3G does not solve the other issue dogging today's GPRS-enabled GSM networks, which is poor latency. This especially affects applications such as Microsoft Outlook, and will limit 3G's ability to challenge the likes of Wi-Fi.

The speed issue is one of the really annoying things about the whole 3G licence fiasco and the UK networks' ensuing resistance to EDGE. A chap from O2-UK said off the record that he doubted his employer would ever do EDGE because his bosses can't see how to charge extra for it.

That characterises the people who run the UK networks to a tee - shortsighted and unimaginative. EDGE would give a huge and relatively inexpensive boost to data speeds, it would get individuals and companies using more data applications, and it would boost their average revenue per user (ARPU). But all they can think of is rubbish like "watch football goals on your phone".

EDGE for more voice capacity
Even the argument that the UK mobile operators need to move to 3G because their 2G networks are congested falls flat when you consider that EDGE could make three times as many voice channels available on today's GSM infrastructure.

EDGE could have been an easier route in other ways, too. Talking to 3 spokesman Edward Brewster recently, he suggested that the reason for the mainstream operators launching with 3G data cards instead of handsets is that "Voice is one of the hard bits to get working in 3G." But since EDGE is an overlay on GSM, voice is already there.

But at least 3 has a strategy of sorts. Criticised by media, analysts and customers alike for not providing data services, its counter is that the consumer market is open to a new name, whereas it took Orange the best part of four years to become established in the business market.

"We would just be brought into business deals to push the price down," Brewster says. He reckons 3 can make money selling voice calls plus video content, such as downloadable music videos, via an all-IP network built for the purpose. Don't consumers want e-mail too, though? Apparently not.

Making use of mobile data
The mainstream UK operators are well aware of the data opportunities. "The key thing for any business user is access to e-mail and other personal information such as a diary. The second thing is access to VPNs, and then it's Web browsing and so on," says Orange's business solutions marketing director Clive Richardson . "Most people who use GPRS find it works but it's infuriatingly slow."

The problem is that they spent so much on their 3G licences that Gordon Brown had difficulty spending it all. So much money that now they can't afford to do anything else - and even then they still can't think beyond pointless video calls and voiceless data cards.

And despite it being one of the things that killed off WAP as a realistic access route for mobile data, they are still in love with the walled garden. This limits the services and content available to only those which the operator has approved, and of course those it can charge for.

"It seems to me that they're all trying, to a greater of lesser extent, to force you to use services they provide rather than simply providing connectivity," commented one potential customer for mobile data. "All in all, what a dreadful industry to have to do business with."

Is Europe yielding to the US?
For once, the US mobile phone operators are ahead of the game. AT&T Wireless has EDGE up and running, and delivering data at 384Kbit/s - as far as Americans are concerned, they already have 3G, never mind that it is based on GSM, not W-CDMA.

OK, so AT&T is still looking to sell premium-rate streaming audio and video services, but unlike 3 in the UK, its users get e-mail, over-the-air diary synchronisation and a Web browser too. And its tri-band Nokia 6620 EDGE handset can connect over Bluetooth to PCs and printers, not just to headsets.

There is one UK operator which has EDGE in place, but you would be hard pressed to work out which it is, as it has airbrushed the information from its history and website, and the service is not available to the public. That operator is Orange and if past reports can be believed, it was only put there as a backup in case anything went wrong with its preferred option, which is 3G.

Elsewhere in Europe, as in the US, there is less pressure to push onwards to 3G regardless of cheaper and simpler options, and EDGE has been widely deployed, although commercial services are still rare. (An interesting sidenote is that Germany, like the UK, also auctioned its 3G licences for obscene amounts of money, and according to the GSM Association it has no EDGE deployments.)

Of course I might be wrong, and it might not all be a huge waste of time and money. But right now we don't need 3G and frankly, I'm not sure we ever did. Plus, with the UK operators in charge I wonder if we ever will!


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