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Developments in Mobile Communications

Dr. John Gill
April 2002

Ten years ago only a few businessmen lugged about heavy expensive mobile phones. Nowadays no self-respecting teenager is without their mobile which can be customised (both facias and ringing tones) to suit the image required, but these phones are often mainly used for text messaging. In this fast changing market, the needs of people with disabilities have been given low priority by the manufacturers and network operators.

Mobile telephones increasingly require the user to read a small liquid crystal screen to operate many of the functions in the phone. Although the phones incorporate increasingly powerful microprocessors, manufacturers have not seen a commercial opportunity in providing models which incorporate speech output of the messages normally displayed on the screen. However there are some indications that this may change because car drivers are seen as a significant market segment.

The first generation of mobile phones were analogue and often prone to interference. Commercial take-off did not happen until the introduction of the second generation digital systems. As a result of European collaboration, a common standard was agreed; the GSM (global system for mobile communications) system is now used in 174 countries - the notable exceptions are the USA and Japan.

One operator realised that it would be possible to send short text messages over the GSM system without any new infrastructure, so they offered the service to their customers for no charge. They little realised that this would end up being a major revenue earner. The annual UK rate is now about ten billion text messages; at 10 pence a message, this corresponds to an income of a billion pounds per year!

The next development was to provide access to text-based information services. WAP (wireless application protocol) was launched with a blaze of publicity with the expectation that consumers would flock to buy the new phones and pay handsomely for the services. WAP has been a commercial failure. The service was far too slow and the information services very limited. However in Japan a similar system, I-mode, was a commercial success since the price was kept very low and a large range of information services provided.

The failure of WAP is not deterring the network operators from planning to launch new mobile services for the transmission of data (rather than just voice communication). Data can be just text, text plus graphics, still pictures, or video. The initial target is to offer access to the internet while mobile. The major question is whether there are sufficient consumers prepared to pay premium rates for such a mobile service.

GPRS (general packet radio service) is a high speed packet data technology which will permit data transmission speeds of up to 100 kbit/s over the GSM network. This is well suited for frequent transmission of small amounts of data. However it could be overtaken by UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system).

Maximum speed kbits/sec

UMTS is the next generation of mobile telecommunications system which will provide high speed access to the internet with data rates of up to 2 Mbit/s, but a tenth of this rate is likely to be typical when outside a city centre. In the UK the network licenses have been sold by the government for vast sums (the first five licenses sold for over £22.5 billion) which will have to be recouped from the users.

UMTS will permit the transmission of video. For instance a blind person might send a picture to a service centre where a sighted person could give instructions on how to reach the desired destination. Another possible use for UMTS would be to download talking books during the night; a typical novel might take about 20 minutes to download.

Plans for fourth generation systems are beginning to be discussed publicly; plans are for these systems to be operational by 2010. An interesting feature is that access by people with disabilities is being considered - an aspect which was notably lacking in the earlier generation plans.

Further information

Mobile Telephony: Will Future Developments be Accessible to Visually Impaired Users?

Call Barred? Inclusive Design of Wireless Systems


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