Whatever happened to the general packet radio service, or GPRS, revolution?

The 2001 holiday season was to be the first period in which all the top handset makers offered phones for the data-friendly service. European networks were supposedly in place, though phones came out a little later than some grumbling carrier CEOs would've liked. And North American wireless carriers were rolling out the service several cities at a time.

Everything seemed to be falling into place to woo consumers back to the cell-phone kiosk to replace their old bread-and-butter Nokia with a jazzy new device that was small, had good battery life and could send and receive data at healthy speeds.

Or so it seemed. In reality, Europe is still getting its networks up to snuff, working on the types of glitches that plague all new technologies. North America still lacks full coverage from any carrier. Nor is there a marketing push to convince consumers that they need phones that can send and receive messages and data.

Reporting its fourth-quarter results, mobile-phone market leader Nokia ( NOK) only vaguely described the millions of GPRS units it shipped in 2001 and nebulously referred to solid market share in the fourth quarter. Motorola ( MOT) expected to ship 5 million GPRS-capable phones in 2001, but fell short with just 4.1 million shipped by year's end. The handset supplier said it finished 2001 with 2.4 million more phones on order from 20 carriers, and attributed the slowdown in GPRS orders to a decline in GSM phone purchases from its customers.

"Europe is the primary market, and it's just not happening," says Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown's Brian Modoff of GPRS. "In our view, carriers will be taking this year to fix it, which is discouraging, since carriers knew GPRS was coming since 1999."

Bigger, Better, Faster

GPRS is a technology upgrade for the mobile-phone networks that use GSM technology, the dominant standard in Europe and Asia. GSM was recently chosen by North America's AT&T Wireless ( AWE), and it also runs Cingular's network. With GPRS, however, networks are improved from being voice-focused to efficiently routing data traffic, giving mobile-phone users the "always on" connection for the quick delivery of instant messages and emails. Additionally, GPRS networks are supposed to provide faster data transmission rates.

Carriers that run networks using Qualcomm-backed ( QCOM) CDMA technology also have an upgrade path for data, called 1X technology, which Verizon ( VZ) and Sprint PCS ( PCS) plan to roll out in the United States in mid-2002. The Yankee Group's Roger Entner estimates that the CDMA upgrade will allow data speeds between 40 to 80 Kbps. Doesn't sound super fast to you, oh connoisseur of T-1 data speeds? Entner explains that GPRS has only been capable of 20 to 40 Kbps speeds, roughly the same speed as a dial-up computer modem.

Nonetheless, handset makers are counting on GPRS and new 1X phones to get the growing ranks of mobile-phone owners to consider chucking their old wares for something that uses data. Texas Instruments ( TXN) CFO Bill Aylesworth told TheStreet.com that 15% of TI's wireless revenues in the fourth quarter were from GPRS sales. Handset makers have to buy chips to build new phones, so it bodes well for GPRS sales in the first quarter -- though Motorola and Nokia have both forecast seasonal declines in the post-holiday period.

Then again, experts warn that the mobile-phone makers will pad their stats by making GPRS a more predominant option. "GPRS as a percentage of revenue is a deceiving number, because GPRS is going to be like WAP," says Modoff of the technology that has allowed consumers to somewhat awkwardly surf the Web on their phones in the past few years. "A lot of phones have gone out with WAP, but how often have people used it? You're going to see GPRS going out as a part of most mid- to high-level phones."

Handset makers will be happy just to get GPRS phones on the market as a start. Then it'll be time to discuss the complex issue of content, pricing and catchy services that appeal to distinct European, U.S. and Asian markets. Since we've yet to see smooth rollouts, we'll make do with new phone sales in a handset market that's expected to grow only 11% over 2001's depressed levels. From this early vantage point, 2002 doesn't look like the breakthrough year for data.

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