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In the space of a few days next week, mobile phone operators are hoping to do for cross-border mobile data services what has taken a decade for mobile telephony.

Top of the agenda at the plenary meeting of the GSM Association, to be held in Rome Tuesday through Thursday next week, is roaming for GPRS (General Packet Radio Service). This is significant because, while subscribers can use the same GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phone in almost any country in the world, GSM's faster, data-oriented cousin, GPRS does not travel so well.

To give GPRS an international boost, the GSM Association wants operators attending the meeting to sign as many bilateral roaming agreements with other attendees as possible during the three-day event, and is organizing a Roamfest to encourage this. The Roamfest was set up at the request of chief executive officers of the Association's operator members, the Association said in a statement. The event runs in parallel with the meeting's other activities, in a series of office suites at the meeting venue where operators can negotiate agreements.

Roaming agreements allow the customers of one operator to use the networks of other operators when travelling away from their home country or city.

In the decade since the first GSM network opened for business, network operators have established thousands of such agreements. Vodafone PLC in Newbury, England, for instance has roaming agreements with 307 networks in 132 countries, according to the company's Web site.

Yet users of GPRS services have much less choice. Vodafone's customers, for example, can use GPRS to surf the Internet or log on to their corporate server from just 16 countries -- three of those so tiny you'd be hard-pushed to find them on a map of the world. (Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican between them cover an area of less than 25 square miles.) Vodafone's parent company, Vodafone Group PLC, owns controlling stakes in over half of the networks with which its U.K. subsidiary has roaming agreements.

There are over 400 licensed GSM operators in 177 countries or regions, according to the GSM Association. In March, only 107 of them, in 50 countries, offered commercial GPRS service over some part of their network coverage area, according to the Association's Web site. Fifteen other operators were testing such services, and 33 others building networks, the Association said. No statistics were available on the number of roaming agreements between those networks.

GPRS data services run at up to 112K bps (bits per second) -- not as fast as the 3G (third generation) services just appearing on the market in some countries, but faster than the digital, second-generation cell phones in use today, leading to GPRS's "2.5G" nickname.

The 47th Plenary Meeting of the GSM Association, open to members only, runs from April 16 through April 18 at the Sheraton Roma Hotel in Rome.

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