As Keanu Reeves was dashing in and out of The Matrix with his Nokia wireless application protocol (Wap)-enabled mobile phone, little did he know that while he was downloading into the real world he could also have paid his gas bill.
It's official: wireless internet services are firmly part of the commercial landscape in the UK, and are becoming more affordable as telecom providers offer a range of try-before-you-buy options to UK businesses.
Halifax bank and BT Cellnet have said they will launch a range of such services this summer.
Account holders will be able to view balances, transfer funds and pay bills using Wap-enabled phones. BT Cellnet will supply the infrastructure for the service, including Wap servers, gateways and help with application development.
Banking on Wap
For Halifax, the partnership with BT Cellnet will allow the bank to take the lead in UK mobile banking without a massive financial commitment, claims chief executive of retail services Dick Spellman. "We aren't betting the farm on this channel at the expense of everything else, so we aren't terrified that it won't take the market by storm," he says.
Halifax will use business information from its credit card division to assess which customers will qualify for the service, adds Spellman.
The services will run on Wap-enabled phones, across Cellnet's general packet radio service (GPRS) network, which offers transmission rates 10 times higher than those currently available.
"This was not an area where we judged we could be at risk of being a follower," says David Crosby, the bank's chief executive. "We know that being first in these areas is very important."
BT Cellnet will be one of the first carriers to roll out a GPRS network, when it completes work on upgrading from GSM this summer. GPRS will bridge the gap between current GSM networks and so-called third generation networks, expected in 2001.
GPRS offers data transfer rates up to 115Kbps. Most GSM networks offer transfer at 9.6Kbps. Because GPRS relies on constant connections shared between users, access costs are lower. With current mobile networks, each user occupies a single channel, regardless of whether it is being used or not - but GPRS shares a channel between multiple users.
The Wap bandwagon
BT Cellnet is not the only vendor seeking to help users read internet content and corporate applications on Wap-enabled devices. Nokia has agreed to supply Danish operator Mobilix with a complete GPRS network and Wap messaging applications using GPRS and simple messaging service (SMS). Orange, while not offering a commercial Wap service to business, will assist with server hosting and application development for corporate customers.
Businesses using hosted services will reap the rewards of being at the forefront of the mobile commerce arena, and will benefit from the launch of the GPRS network later this year. There is a caveat, however.
"While GPRS is a far more cost-effective way of delivering Wap services, the handsets to take advantage of the networks will not be available in volume until the autumn," notes Robert Leonardi, senior industry analyst with Giga Group.
To date, the Nokia 7110 - as favoured by Neo - is the only commercially available Wap handset, retailing at £130 with contract. Ericsson is working on a GPRS handset, and demonstrated a working prototype at last month's GSM World Congress in Cannes. Motorola has announced its own Wap handset, the Timeport.
Although there is a lack of hardware to exploit Wap's potential, Spellman is convinced that mobile commerce is essential for his business. "We know that mobile Internet access is far more cost-effective than branch banking or even telephone banking through call centres," he says.
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