Bunny, We Hardly Knew Ye

Dear ol' Auntie Beeb has dug up a long dead example of Brit wireless technology, the Rabbit phone service, to serve as a cautionary example to companies planning public wireless LAN services in the U.K.

The wascally wabbit service had some spooky similarities with today's public access 802.11b services. The system allowed users to make mobile phone calls within 100 meters of the Rabbit transmitter, and was intended to be used in railway stations and other public places, according to the BBC.

It's all sounding pretty familiar so far, right?

Rabbit (Cockney rhyming slang for "talk"), was run by Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. and was one of four now-defunct location-specific phone services launched in Britain in the late eighties, according to the Gingham Corporation.

We wonder how much the Rabbit service cost, back in those days.

British Telecom (BT) (NYSE: BTY) has come up with a ludicrous pricing scheme for its initial WLAN hotspot offering, as Unstrung has pointed out before (see Crazy Prices for BT's WLAN). The crusty old incumbent plans to charge £95 a month (that's around US$146) for access to a service that is going to have very patchy -- to say the least -- coverage, at least initially.

If companies insist on charging that kind of price for WLAN, it seems unlikely that there will be much interest in commercial 802.11b services in the U.K. Particularly when there is already a thriving underground network of non-commercial WLAN hotspots, courtesy of groups like Consume.net.

Of course, there have also been similar failures in the U.S. If you ever want to see the CEO of a wireless LAN startup turn green and start to look distinctly sheepish, then just whisper the word "Ricochet" into his ear (this works without fail, trust us).

Yep, Metricom Inc.'s grand experiment in building out a wireless data service gathered many fans during its speedy dash to oblivion -- and should really serve as a stark warning to companies exuberantly building out hotspot networks now.

Metricom started the 128-kbit/s network in 1999. By August 2001 it had switched the network off and shuffled off this corporate coil. The consensus was that the service was promising but too expensive and didn't have good enough coverage.

Interestingly , a brief check of the Ricochet Website shows that there are plans afoot to get the system going again. Good luck with that!

Ricochet and Rabbit are just two examples of what happens when mobile plans go bad. If you have other favorite wireless washouts, get on the message board and let us know.

Incidentally,Ricochet Rabbit was the name of a short-lived U.S. cartoon, which lasted about as long as these services did. Although, the name of the U.K service was probably inspired the cockney rhyming slang, whereby rabbit and pork (usually just shortened to rabbit) equals talk.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
spc_King 12/4/2012 | 9:59:38 PM
re: Bunny, We Hardly Knew Ye I'm afraid DECT is another example, even though it is still continuing to fail...at least as a public coverage service (it's allright as a cordless phone standard).

It was supposed to be the entry into the wireless business in Europe (at first) for wireline operators who had not gotten one of those juicy GSM licences.
Technology wise it was quite cool, high speeds and excellent (albeit extravagant at 32kbps) voice quality (ADPCM), adaptive basestations (automatically switched to differen frequencies to avoid interfering with other established cells in the area) and the standard also had near wireless LAN speeds and principles (~300kbps) for data.
One of the main reasons it never took off was the success of GSM as a technology, but also that people simply didn't believe that the frequency spectrum it occupied could be used licence free after all (don't know how true that was).

But, anyway it is dead now...

apeterc 12/4/2012 | 9:59:37 PM
re: Bunny, We Hardly Knew Ye Highly recommended reading on:
an IEEE communications magazine article dated 1992 - a good lesson for all long-term forecasters of brilliant prospects for unstable technologies (any ideas of current comparable situations, anyone?)

Among other stunning assessments the article contains, for example, the following one: "In practice, however, Telepoint will not compete head on with DCS1800 or cellular, because the infrastructure costs for comparative wide area coverage would be prohibitive". Of course.
Any idea for the WLAN vs UMTS debate (although some say the debate is irrelevant)? Which one of the two is the equivalent of CT2?

The article also includes a stunning chart projecting the number of users into the year 2000 for CT0, CT2 and DECT standards... as well as a list of Telepoint networks in 1992.
standardsarefun 12/4/2012 | 9:58:02 PM
re: Bunny, We Hardly Knew Ye Actually DECT itself is not a flop - as a cordless phone it is now a huge market.

The problem was the standards that were developed for CTM (Cordless Telephone Mobility) that were written to add public mobilty services to a DECT based access network. They were very ISDN+IN based and simply arrived too late in Europe as the GSM market exploded.

The biggest DECT/CTM trial/launch was in Italy which involved the Telecom Italia fixed operator in a direct fight with the Telecom Italia Mobile operator - oh those were the days!
spc_King 12/4/2012 | 9:57:53 PM
re: Bunny, We Hardly Knew Ye Standard-man,

You seem to know a lot about the CTM-Italy project. I'm guessing you are from Ericsson, then :-)

I wrote code for that project and as I pointed out some posts ago DECT is alright for cordless, but I did not specifically mention CTM which technically is what failed (Although a public access profile for the handsets was specified as part of the DECT standards - GAP was it?).

However, I fail to see why DECT/CTM should have failed simply because it was based on IN and the fact that GSM as a technology was getting widespread. Yes, I agree those are contributing factors, but did you hear anything about the legal issues surrounding free use of the frequency spectrum?

I guess the issue with broader interest to the other readers is how similar to public WLAN coverage the DECT/CTM solution was and whether the failure of DECT/CTM was due simply to timing, network technology (i.e. IN), legal issues or what?

I guess what counts in favour of the public WLAN of today is that it is getting a strong grassroot following with people who are setting up coverage in cafe's etc and it could spawn wider interest and adoption and it is getting a lot for free from all the hype.
I guess one issue is whether all the hype as given it critical mass. I'll let WLAN insiders debate that.

What little I could contribute with is the legal issue: If it was such an issue for DECT/CTM (and I'd like others to confirm that) then why shouldn't the same issue hurt WLAN?
I am guessing the FCC's of many countries could start interfering when they see frequency spectrum being used for other than foreseen purposes and when/if it competes with spectrum that has been auctioned off at high cost (both the licencees and the goverment has an interest in not letting people get away with cheating them out of potential revenue!)

I guess what I am saying is that I think one of the lessons from the DECT/CTM saga is that the legal issue can come and kick WLAN people in the butt at a later stage when they are getting critical mass and is becoming a serious competitor to the established and paid for frequency users and goverments.

I think that is what happened with DECT/CTM (I know, it does sound like a conspiracy theory and it probably is :-)

My $0.02 worth,


standardsarefun 12/4/2012 | 9:48:22 PM
re: Bunny, We Hardly Knew Ye If my memory serves me well there were at least two problems with DECT/CTM in Italy:

1. GSM started to boom and who cares if the other system was better or not! (Have you still got a BETA video player?)

2. "Free spectrum" is a nasty thing to use for a public network since you are always going to suffer when someone sets up a high density private system in your market area. The problem is that your public network will always be designed to match your traffic load (initially very low) while the private network (say a wireless PABX, a corporate wireless LAN, etc.) will set up from day one for big capacity. In such a scenario the shorter radio hops and down goes the QoS!

3. Funny (old) European regulation issues
I think there was also a problem related to licences to offer services in some European countries which are (were) then related to how you delivered the service. Not sure about Telecom Italia but I think the French had trouble on that count.
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