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Kick-starting the mobile Internet


Toll-free telephone numbers benefit everyone. It costs callers nothing to use them and organisations paying for the lines attract more callers. Recent trials in Europe suggest this same win-win concept could be successfully used with the mobile Internet.

Surfing the Internet is easy with a third-generation (2.5/3G) mobile phone. But these miracles of wireless technology are nowhere near as popular as expected. Perhaps because their users pay for every byte of data they receive, whereas computer users can browse the Web for virtually nothing over a fixed-line connection.

Innovative billing could ride to the rescue of 3G phones. Under the IST project Free-G, citizens of five European countries were offered the chance to access the Internet with their phones for nothing. The overall response to this "free-air access" was positive. "Free-G brought the concept of 0800 free-phone numbers to the mobile Internet," says Jennifer Kwok, project coordinator. "Our trials proved that free-air access stimulates customers to use the mobile Internet and to use it more often. Mobile operators also benefit by increasing their revenue per user."

The project took its inspiration from the now familiar 0800 numbers. The partners developed sophisticated software (mi800) that is integrated by the mobile phone operator (on its infrastructure), the company (on its website) and the service provider. When the Free-G solution is up and running, a special icon appears on the display of 3G phones, telling people which mobile websites or pages offer free or subsidised access.

According to Kwok, this new charging concept is innovative because it allows a third party such as the content provider to pay for a subscriber’s air access. "This opens opportunities for new business models and revenue-share models," she says.

In the Israeli free-access trials, the number of customers surfing Free-G areas of airline El Als website initially increased, but only in the short term. Kwok explains why: "Mobile operators in Israel charge only seven eurocents per megabyte, compared to two euros in the UK and Greece. Also, many Israeli 3G subscribers benefit from flat-rate billing. So free-air access has a minimal impact."

Trials at online stock-trading company Stocknet were more encouraging. The firm noted a significant increase in the use of its website and trading in its services, both in Norway and Germany. However, a Norwegian firm selling cinema tickets online saw only a small increase in site usage. The United Kingdom trials (with a mobile operator and an airline) showed that other billing propositions, such as free delivery and variable charging, appeal more than free access.

A Greek municipality, offering free access to an online job centre, said users admired the service but did not use it much. "The site was not very interactive: so making a dull service free was never going to increase user numbers," says Kwok. "Free-G demonstrated the business case for free-air access", she adds, noting that this concept can promote customer loyalty. "Our solution works for local and roaming environments, and produces accurate bills. But we also discovered it cannot be applied to all mobile data services and will not succeed in every mobile phone industry."

Asked to draw a main conclusion, Kwok has no hesitation. "If the mobile Internet is to take off, operators must simplify their data billing."

Jennifer Kwok
Atos Origin
4 Triton Square
Regent’s Place
London NW1 3HG
United Kingdom
Tel: +44-7733-315606
Fax: +44-207-8304700

Source: Based on information from Free-G

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