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GPRS in Asia :: Experiences on the road
Thursday, 14 June 2007
Mobile phone networks have expanded very rapidly in the last 10 years. Asian and Middle East countries have seen an explosion of mobile phone usage. It’s everywhere in the bigger cities and coverage on the main roads isn’t rare anymore. The phones are the latest models and even beggars have been spotted with mobile phones.

Now a new generation of mobile phones with build-in cameras have a feature that enables the user to send pictures to others. It uses an extension on the SMS text message service called MMS. In turn the MMS service uses the GPRS service for delivery. This in turn has started mobile phones companies to offer the GPRS service on a wider scale. GPRS can also be used to connect a laptop to the Internet using a mobile phone. However the limitation of GPRS is speed. Compared to ADSL & Cable based Internet it’s like going back to the early stages of the ole modem era. Which is a huge step backwards.

But still the advantage of being able to access e-mail and web surfing at any location in the GSM network outweighs the lower connection speed by far. But getting access to the Internet working using a GPRS service isn’t as easy as it seems, especially when it’s not part of a daily routine. Here you’ll find a few experiences.

One of the first hurdles in getting to use a GPRS service is understanding the cost structure of Internet access (usually called GPRS) for a prepay SIM card. In general there’s a charge per Megabyte or Kilobyte. The best part however is finding out if there’s a limit after which the charge is zero. A few examples from spring 2007: Mero Mobile in Nepal sets the charge (1 rs / 50 Kb) to 0 for the rest of the month once 75 Mb has been downloaded. Airtel in India has a day-based charge (20 rs) for unlimited use. Ufone Pakistan charges one rate / Megabyte (15 rs) regardless of it’s use. Compared to what’s available in Europe these deals are outrageously cheap.

Next is finding out if there’s interstate roaming within a country. Nepal has one national rate. India has interstate roaming however for Airtel GPRS, the rates are unchanged. Pakistan has one national rate. If there’s an extra roaming charge, using GPRS quickly get way to expensive to use. Just like the European based GPRS  service plans outside the country of purchase.  

Getting the GPRS service started usually involves a call to the helpdesk. In Nepal it was activated from start. In India it involved sending Airtel an SMS to start or stop it. In Pakistan it was turned on by the helpdesk. The phone itself usually shows if there is GPRS capability in a network.

A real technical hurdle is to find out the required GPRS setting. Usually a GPRS capable GSM phone has several GPRS setting profiles. The profiles can be used to switch between GPRS services - (read GSM networks). A GPRS setting profile contains the GPRS setting parameters necesarry to use it.

A GPRS setting profile usually contains the following items:
  1. The APN - the name for the GPRS service
  2. Username
  3. Password
Sometimes the phone has to be switched on and off to get the phone to use the new GPRS setting. In many cases the username and password are left empty.

Using a GPRS service on the phone itself through a phone based web browser  called WAP requires:
  1. IP address, 
  2. port number 
  3. WAP home page. 
The latter is good to have too. It enables you to test if the Internet is working on the phone. The WAP settings are usually stored in the GPRS setting profile too.

Modern GSM phones can also handle a GPRS setting sent by the GSM network provider. This makes it a lot easier to activate the GPRS service on the phone. The mobile network provider usually sends a special GPRS setting message to the phone upon activation of the GPRS service.

To get the GPRS setting it usually requires a call to a helpdesk or browsing the WebPages of the mobile operator. Experience wise the correct and most recent GPRS setting is not always there. Sometimes it requires more than a few helpdesk calls to get the right GPRS setting parameters for using the GPRS service.

With the above GPRS setting parameters the Internet should work on the phone. Usually this is a good test to see if it’s working already using the phone web browser. Getting it to work on a laptop is a few more steps.

Connecting a mobile phone to a laptop can range from just a one-button installation to a painful process of driver updates. The manufacturer of the mobile phone usually supplies the GPRS modem drivers. In general terms the GPRS modem (in the mobile phone) is installed on the PC and connected to a free COM port. The connection with the phone can be serial (RS232) or wireless (Bluetooth, Infrared).

From this stage it’s telling windows to use the GPRS modem and to dial in on the mobile network to access the Internet. The network connection wizard helps you doing this. It only thing needs the GPRS dial in number. For mobile networks this is: *99***1#. The username and password fields can remain empty because they’re already installed in the mobile phone.

If all is ok – dialling in on the mobile network will connect the laptop to the mobile network. If not? Welcome to the world of communication diagnostics. Re-check all the info gathered and correctly installed and try again. Specially check if the Internet can be accessed on the mobile phone using the build in browser. If not work on the mobile phone first.

When it actually does connect, the PC has been given an IP address and the DNS server address. Checking mail and browsing the Internet should now work. A good thing to start with is to figure out how fast the connection actually is. Several speed testing websites are there to do this. However when the rates are steep, it’s probably the best to just check mail using a POP based mail program and see how fast it retrieves mails.

Using a GPRS service for a longer time shows how the mobile technology performs in different circumstances. Sometimes it’s not a pretty picture. Slow speed, sudden disconnects, unable to get on the network or being given a dirty mobile channel with lots of disturbance. It usually results in dialling in lots of times to get a good connection.

Being close to a GSM aerial usually is a good thing. Especially if it’s a quiet area with no one around to clog the available radio frequencies. (Voice calls are given a higher priority than GPRS) The speed can then handle downloads, chats and basic surfing. Seeing a 6 Kb/sec stable download rate for minutes in a row time is pretty good for this technology.

On high speeds the phone itself usually has no time to do anything else. Buttons freeze and displays are updated very slowly. Also the software in the phone can lock up and causes the connection to drop. The Siemens ME45 has this after several megabytes of download. Suddenly the connection speed drops to zero. There’s nothing else left than to reset the phone by powering it off and on again. But to figure that one out takes some time. Usually it is blamed on the mobile phone network.

A good practice is having a network speed graph on display with in and out going traffic. It shows what you’re actually getting and what’s happening on the line. Same for a byte counter – it’s a direct indicator how much the session is going to cost you.

With MMS on the new mobile phones, GPRS service usage will probably rise too. For the ones who want to use a GPRS service to connect a laptop to the Internet in Asia, prior GPRS experience does help a great deal. Doing this the first time in Asia is a big hurdle, especially if you have limited time.

The very best of using  a GPRS service is to get 24 hr access without horrendous expensive charges. Being able to access e-mail without having to sit in cramped corner for a few hours is simply great. A bit more speed would be a big plus but when it’s working, there is not a lot to complain about. In all prior experience with a GPRS service is a major advantage.
Without it’s a lot of hurdles and frustration to get it working the first time. And when travelling time usually goes somewhere else anyways – however when it’s working, it’s a great thing to have.

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