3GSM ASIA - Asian carriers to offer flat-rate data roaming

Aiming to increase the use of cellular data services by business people travelling in Asia

Some of Asia's biggest cellular carriers are banding together to offer a flat-rate data roaming service, hoping to increase the use of cellular data services by business people travelling in Asia.

Like voice roaming, data roaming can be very expensive, with costs of several US dollars just to log on and download a single e-mail. Larger documents like spreadsheets and presentations cost even more, making the service a pricey option for all but those with generous expense accounts.

The new service, planned for early next year, will allow travellers to log on and surf the Internet from their phones for a flat daily fee. Each carrier will offer its own specific terms, so some are likely to put a cap on the amount of data that can be sent and received, while others may offer an all-you-can-use option.

The carriers are part of a group called the Conexus Mobile Alliance, which was formed in 2006 and includes Hong Kong's Hutchison, Indonesia's Indosat, Japan's NTT DoCoMo, the Philippines' Smart, Singapore's StarHub, South Korea's KT Freetel and Taiwan's Far EasTone. With NTT DoCoMo's stake in carriers in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands included, the alliance covers 11 territories and 160 million consumers.

The planned service, announced at the 3GSM Asia conference in Macau, helps the alliance to take a big step towards one of its key goals: improving WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) data roaming for travellers in Asia. Operators in the region are fast deploying WCDMA networks that offer data speeds several times that of current GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks.

Some carriers are well advanced in their plans and already offer faster data access using HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access). HSDPA, which is an upgrade to WCDMA, pushes speeds to 1.8M bps in its first step, and even faster with more advanced versions. Japan's NTT DoCoMo is currently offering 3.6M bps, and plans to launch a 7.2M bps service early next year.

Two additional carriers joined the alliance on Tuesday: India's Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL) and Manager Telephone Nigam (MTNL). While the extension of service to India is likely to be welcomed, the consortium has yet to attract a mainland Chinese carrier as a partner.

The alliance said at last year's ITU Telecom World in Hong Kong that it wanted to snag a member in China. However, China has yet to disclose plans for the launch of 3G services and it is unknown how many operators there will enter the field and which, if any, will use WCDMA.

Also Tuesday, the alliance said it plans a SIM card replacement service for corporate users that will, for example, allow an NTT DoCoMo user traveling in Jakarta to get a replacement DoCoMo SIM card from Indosat.

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