The lack of GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) mobile handsets, which has been hampering the roll-out of these services, should ease by the third quarter of this year, according to David Almstrom, vice president of business strategy for L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. in China.
"We will deliver some GPRS handsets in April and in greater volumes by the third quarter," he said at the Internet World conference here Wednesday. Almstrom said he expected other manufacturers such as Nokia Corp. and Motorola Inc. to follow a similar schedule.
Several countries in Asia -- China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore -- have launched GPRS networks, but have all limited them to preferred customers because of a shortage of handsets. Several European operators have delayed launching GPRS services for the same reason.
Several technical issues have been holding up volume production of GPRS handsets, according to Almstrom. Batteries need to be made more long-lasting, and there are still problems about packing all the circuitry into a small enough phone without causing the powerful devices to overheat.
There are also concerns about the level of radiation emitted by the phones -- to keep this within acceptable limits, GPRS networks may have to reduce their transmission speeds from 144k bps (bits per second) to as low as 30k bps, operators have conceded.
A typical GPRS network is operated by Mobile One Asia Pte. Ltd. (M1) in Singapore. Launched last November, the service is restricted to 1,000 corporate customers, because of the lack of GPRS phones. In the early phases of the service, data throughput is being limited to 36k bps, according to M1.
Despite the teething troubles, Asian operators have no choice but to go ahead with deploying advanced networks -- and particularly 3G (third-generation) networks -- to cater for the unprecedented growth in subscribers in Asia, according to Almstrom.
3G networks can handle four times as many subscribers as existing 2G (second-generation) networks for each base station, Almstrom said.
"In 1998, the Chinese government estimated there would be 30 million mobile phone subscribers by the end of 2000," he said. "In fact, there were 85 million by that time, and there will be 300 million by 2004. Companies like China Mobile (Communications Corp.) may have over 200 million subscribers and will have to look to 3G to handle that."
Another bonus for 3G operators in Asia is that they are unlikely to have to pay the huge license fees recently seen in Europe, and can place their investment where it counts -- in building infrastructure, according to Almstrom.
Mobile phones will also be important devices for Internet access in Asia, with around 100 million mobile Internet subscribers expected by 2004, Almstrom said.