Wireless carriers have the goods

Not long ago, I started to read about all the North American cellular vendors’ efforts to develop and implement a global system for mobile communication (GSM) architecture (with all its relevant data transfer and communications benefits) to replace their wireless North American analogue and digital networks. Being a communications author and consultant, it seemed that I should find out what these vendors were up to.

My first call was to a major provider whose in-the-works Seattle-area network had been written up in several trade magazines. Upon calling the company, I was directed to the customer services group, where a representative told me that the company did not offer GSM! This representative also did not know what GPRS (general packet radio service – GSM’s always-on data standard) meant. Undaunted by this “closed encounter of the first kind,” I set out to find someone, somewhere who knew what I was talking about.

My next attempt involved a conversation with the provider’s marketing group. There I was told that the company was installing GPRS on top of its North American network, and that it would talk only to corporations that would have 200 or more subscribers. I tried a new tactic. I was developing a seminar on GSM and GPRS as well as writing a book on the same subject, and “Was there anyone to whom I could speak, and get more details?” The answer? The company was under privacy about that subject, and no one in the company knew where it was being installed or when it would become available, nor would anyone want to speak about it.

Next, I went to another major provider. I knew that this company was owned by an international organization, and that it had already rolled out its GSM network throughout the United States. That meant adjusting the GSM network to handle GPRS would require no major innovations, which gave me some hope. Miraculously, I was advised that the company was indeed offering GSM and GPRS services. Hallelujah! I ran down to the local store to sign up for the service. I even brought my own GSM/GPRS device (a Motorola Inc. Accompli – it’s a masterful PDA, phone and always-on Internet access device).

I chose the basic service, subscribed and set about to attempt my own configuration. I met with limited success. While some items worked, others did not. After some trial and error, I decided it was time to call tech support: Luckily this group understood what the acronyms stand for and attempted to walk me through the set-up process.

Unfortunately, these same support folks were working strictly off a worksheet prepared for them and some of my problems weren’t covered on the sheet. After a bit of cajoling and prodding I finally came to the conclusion that no one really knew what this all meant. I don’t surrender easily, however, and after a few days of playing with this, that and the other setting, I finally got everything to work on my own.

My point is that every day I read about how the wireless carriers are “dying,” and that their market is drying up. Yet at the same time, they all claim that 3G wireless services (like GSM and GPRS) will save them. But how can they get to that point with the poorly trained, ill-advised tech support and marketing folks? Who will step forward and take responsibility? It’s certain that 3G is coming, but it won’t be on most consumers’ radar screens unless these vendors finally get their act together and show at least some understanding of the products and services.

Bud Bates is the author of books on wireless broadband and GPRS from The McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc. He can be reached atbud@tcic.com.