Orange looks to boost GPRS with flat rate Net plan

Orange SA, the French mobile phone group, will launch a program next week in France allowing users unlimited access to mobile phone services over its GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) networks for a flat monthly fee.

Beginning Thursday, Orange subscribers in France will be charged €6 (US$5.50) for unlimited mobile access to data services such as news, entertainment and e-mail using WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) technology over the GPRS network, said Stuart Jackson, an Orange spokesman in the U.K.

Orange, owned by France Télécom SA and based in Paris, is hoping its price plan will kick start the mass market for wireless data by encouraging users to see what sort of services GPRS has to offer, Jackson said. In a market where mobile operators have traditionally charged for Internet access by the minute or by data quantity, Orange is hoping that it will be able to lure its rivals to offer competitive pricing industry wide, Jackson said.

Orange plans to extend the service throughout Europe in the third quarter, though no decision has been made regarding pricing or if access will be unlimited, Jackson said.

"The tariff principle will be the same (as in France), but it hasn't been decided if it's going to be unlimited access or if there will be a limit to the number and size of data downloads over the month. It is all market dependent: the U.K. market is very different from the Dutch market, which is different from the Swedish market," Jackson said.

In the past year, the overall picture for the mobile devices market has been one of decline due to market saturation, particularly in western Europe. Therefore, operators have been trying to expand the market to include data as well as voice by encouraging users to buy GPRS handheld devices needed to access data services.

But according to a study released Wednesday by Gartner Inc.'s Dataquest Inc. division, consumers are not convinced that the benefits of data applications and services warrant the expense of upgrading their handsets, creating an "applications gap" in the market and stalling overall growth.

Jackson agreed that operators must try harder to make wireless data services a more appealing prospect for consumers. "Our unlimited pricing plan is a way to encourage people to try the services and to see what they can bring to their lives. Users can access the services to find out the weather, sports scores and purchase tickets to the cinema and other events," Jackson said.

To highlight what Orange believes will be one of the most popular data services, the company is launching the unlimited pricing plan in France the day before the start of the World Cup, with an advertising campaign starring French soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane, Jackson said.

Jackson conceded that apart from sports scores and the purchase of tickets for events, data services remain a limited proposition. "It is accurate to say that WAP services over GPRS are in the early stages. But services will evolve and will become more compelling. Orange understands that, and we'll be launching new services in the next few months," he said.

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