Youre thinking of investing in a mass-market GPRS data project? Let me show you an old sepia-tint photograph.
The photograph isnt of an early portable phone. Its of a street in North London—actually, the street where my wife grew up. It shows Crouch End Broadway, if you really want to look it up. There is a car driving along the road, and a few people walking across the street.
Selling a GPRS data system in America is as tempting as selling an autocar to the people in that photograph. What can possibly go wrong? You can park wherever you like. There are no street lights—what for? Theres no conflict between streams of traffic. It looks like a motorist would be in heaven. Go on, buy an automobile!
So, of course, people did. The same street is now marked with parking prohibitions, aluminum fencing to keep pedestrians off the dangerous traffic zone, and more red, amber and green lights than Londons famous Oxford Street has for its holiday decorations; and it is absolutely solid with frustrated motorists driving at 5 miles per hour.
PalmOne has (as pointed out in an earlier column) singularly failed to repeat its American success in Europe, and President Ed Colligan arrived in London to whip up enthusiasm amongst the financial community—ahead of his launch of the Treo 650 smartphone next February.
There was skepticism because it is clear that Colligan, like most American pioneers of wireless data, really doesnt know what a phone traffic jam is like. Like so many other visitors from across the Atlantic, he spoke airily of reading all his e-mail on his Treo in London and Singapore and Sydney. And there was this silence. An uncomfortable silence.
The same problem faces Danger as it attempts to launch its Hiptop in Europe, on the back of its success in the States. Both these devices have succeeded in generating far more revenue per user for the networks that sell them in North America, but both are viewed as a menace by European phone operators. Why? Simple! Theyll jam the data highways.
All you can eat
The marketing ploy that works in America is an “all you can eat” deal. Colligan spends $15 a month, he says, on mobile data—a flat fee. You could, just about, imagine that a UK operator might allow a local user to have a $15 (ten pounds sterling, roughly) bill for data but theyd be restricted to about 5MB per month. And if they crossed any national border?
Ah, well, poor them. International roaming charges on GPRS in Europe reflect the scarcity of the resource. I still remember the horror on the face of the PR man who loaned me a phone for a weeks business travel in Spain when he found what it did to his budget. Telefonica hosted me, charged 34 euros per megabyte, and I used the link to read my Outlook mailbox. To this day, I have only got a rough approximation of what the bill was after seven days, but it was close to $1,000.
Not all roaming is that extortionate, but “all you can eat” deals of the sort that are essential to Treo and Hiptop users would simply clog every GPRS network in Europe. The capacity isnt there, as any analyst will quickly inform you.
In two years, perhaps, when EDGE networks are spreading to replace GPRS, and when WCDMA universal mobile telephone services are installed in more than a few capital cities, the option of having a half-gigabyte of monthly data to download will be reasonable.
But if youre planning to replicate data usage patterns from American and Canadian networks anywhere else in the world, be aware: Youll be eating rations.
All you can eat, in the rest of the world, does not depend on your appetite. It depends on the size of the bowl youre given to load up. And for the foreseeable future, that bowl is a small dish, indeed.
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