A direct quote from Yours Truly in 1994, when I was building the web presence for a company that later became InfoWave Wireless Networks:
“This is stupid. Nobody’s going to want to just access their email on mobile devices — people want to surf the web from anywhere!”
Long-time FOIBers know how wrong I think I was.
MOBITEX is the un-sexy, Ericsson-proprietary data network. Rogers operates it in Canada, BellSouth in the US. It’s interesting ’cause it’s a very old network that was built from the ground-up as a data-only system, whereas GPRS, CDPD, and others are simply data abstraction layers overlaid on switched voice networks.
I think it’s probable that MOBITEX could experience a renaissance of sorts in the coming couple of years, now that people other than subscribers to this list are starting to realize that 3G is a faint, whimpering hope. It all depends upon what Ericsson does with it.
This author contends that if Ericsson were smart, they’d Open-Source MOBITEX right away. Allow anybody to build equipment, and leverage the overall market’s growth to become the preeminent supplier of MOBITEX gear.
MOBITEX is now more than 10 years old… could it finally be all growed up?
Mobitex is poised to lead the wireless network revolution. Read on to find out more in Alison Campbell’s “Mobitex versus GPRS – the latest mobile data war?”
By Alison Campbell
It’s been operating in the UK for almost ten years, but not many mobile users may be aware of Mobitex.
A different story can be heard in the USA where the wireless data communications network has a high profile, primarily because of its involvement with the much-acclaimed success of RIM Blackberry.
As the dawning of mass-market mobile data is upon us, Mobitex is poised for market expansion and may even be viewed as a competitor to GPRS. So what does the technology have to offer and how does it compare to the giant of next-generation wireless comms?
The company behind Mobitex in the UK has been RAM Mobile Data, which was acquired at the end of 2000 (along with Tardis Mobile and Playsafe Monitoring) by Transcomm plc. The three companies have been consolidated into Transcomm UK, which is now the UK network operator for Mobitex.
The technology itself was developed by Ericsson back in the mid 1980s to address the need for mobile access to the Internet or enterprise networks. It was initially developed for use by Telia Telecom as a way of controlling mobile communications costs for the company’s fleet of field service engineers. Designed for two-way, packet-switched, data only communication – using devices such as pagers, palm-tops and PDAs – Mobitex has achieved great success in various vertical markets and now has around 30,000 users on its UK network.
In the UK, Mobitex has been targeted at the public sector, transport & distribution and the field service industry, where it competes head-on with Cognito. A recent agreement with Communication Network Interfaces (CNI) of Korea will see a new range of two-way messaging devices being developed specifically for Mobitex users. This opens up the market for Transcomm to target white-collar sectors (such as the City) and other mobile users that need secure and reliable access to mission critical applications.
Like GPRS, Mobitex offers an ‘always on, always connected’ service, but unlike GPRS it has been specifically designed to carry two-way data, quickly and securely, and not voice. The technology is not being marketed as a direct competitor for GPRS, ‘But,’ says Ben Wood, a senior analyst with Gartner Group, ‘GPRS has done Mobitex a big favour by creating awareness of the benefits of mobile data. If Transcomm can ride on the back of that they could do very well.’
Rich Pullin, Managing Director of Transcomm UK, explains his view: ‘we’re offering an alternative to GPRS but it depends on what the user wants. Mobitex has many advantages. Network performance, for example, is not hindered by voice communications but it really depends on what’s important to the user.’
The main advantage Mobitex has over GPRS is that it’s here, deployed successfully, and has been so for ten years. Most experts say that GPRS will not really be fully available until the middle of next year.
As for the technology, Mobitex is data only, which limits it from competing with anything other than the GSM aspects of GPRS. However, there’s something to be said for treating voice and data as separate solutions. Recent research indicates that 83 percent of requirements for mobile data are for short messaging services (SMS).
Mobitex offers a data transfer speed of 8kbps. GPRS, on the other hand (because it operates on fours channels), can offer transfer speeds of up to 38kbps. But voice communication requires significantly more bandwidth. So therefore, performance could be constrained by how many users are on the network at any one time. Realistically achievable data transfer speeds could be much less. The problem GPRS has it that it is being overlaid on top of GSM, which means that in busy cities and urban areas it could be difficult to achieve anything like a decent data speed.
Mobitex is also said to be an extremely secure network, a primary requirement for trading exchanges. It is one of the only networks in the UK utilised by the Police and emergency services without encryption (although encryption can be built in).
Mobitex is designed to facilitate file transfer because it is what’s termed ‘symmetric”, while GPRS is asymmetric. What this means is that Mobitex devices support an even number of time slots in the uplink as they do in the downlink. Put simply, this means it’s easy to transfer files because the available bandwidth is the same all the way along the link.
GPRS on the other hand is ideal for viewing web applications or for gaming because devices support more time slots in the downlink than the uplink.
With GPRS, users get more bandwidth, which is necessary for voice and graphically hungry applications, but this means it is also more expensive. WAP sites are typically 1 gigabyte in size, which could cost as much as Â£2 per viewing as pricing stand today. So for users that require a fixed cost solution, GPRS may not be ideal. The likelihood is, however, that GPRS operators will offer a choice of packages geared towards different types of user, as will Transcomm with Mobitex. Says Wood: ‘As the market evolves, network operators in both camps will have to become much more competitive by offering a choice of services and tariff options.’
Whereas GPRS is an open technology, Mobitex is a proprietary standard. There will be less service providers and systems integrators designing and building applications to run on the network. For an enterprise-wide solution, Mobitex requires some bespoke programming and bespoke application design. But mobile data comes into best effect when integrated into the business, so for corporates this shouldn’t be a problem. For the single or consumer user it might be more difficult find devices, applications and games. There seems little difference between Mobitex and GPRS on t he pricing side, but Transcomm seems determined to compete starting with a basic service at around Â£10 per month (same as GPRS). Handsets for both can be purchased at sub Â£300. But as an established standard without the benefit of pre-Christmas hype, could Mobitex ever be a threat to GPRS?