Vodafone Makes Light of the Mobile Internet

Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) signaled a new era of mobile data access today with the launch of a new package designed to encourage customers in developing markets to get online using their mobile devices.

The operator has teamed up with Opera Software ASA on the development of a special version of the Opera Mini 5 browser that enables a decent mobile Internet experience on low-end handsets over General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) connections.

Vodafone says the browser can compress data by 90 percent, and, compared with regular handsets and mobile browsers, uses less handset processing power and bandwidth when Internet-based applications are in use.

The carrier has also developed a new user interface, including on- screen, step-by-step instructions (using icons and local languages), designed for people unfamiliar with Web applications.

The browser is being embedded in 20 devices and can be downloaded to 250 handsets that support GPRS connectivity.

Vodafone hopes this will encourage customers in developing countries, especially those where fixed lines are in short supply, to use their mobile devices as their primary Internet access device, and use e-commerce and messaging/email applications.

The move makes sense. As the margins from voice services continue to be squeezed, all mobile operators are looking for ways to boost their ARPUs from greater data service usage, especially if that can be achieved without putting too much strain on their existing infrastructure and back-office capabilities. (See CTIA 2010: Data Overtakes Voice, Vendors Tackle Mobile Data Management, and Policy Matters to Mobile Broadband Operators.)

And while Vodafone has a business case to invest in enhanced 3G network technologies in mature markets that boast high levels of GDP per capita, it needs to find other ways to promote mobile data usage in developing countries where the majority of users have low levels of disposable income, without busting its tightened budgets. (See What Capacity Crunch?, MWC 2010: Data Deluge, Report: Mobile Internet Yet to Take Off in India, Vodafone Digs Deeper to Cut Costs, Vodafone's Data Driver, and Vodafone's Data Drive.)

The first markets targeted with the new devices and tools are India (where Vodafone is bidding for 3G and broadband wireless access spectrum in the upcoming auctions), Turkey, and three African markets -- Egypt, South Africa, and Tanzania. (See Bids Flood In for India's Spectrum Auctions.)

The move follows the carrier's February launch of very low-cost handsets (US$15 and $20) designed for voice and text services, which are available in India, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey, Mozambique, Qatar, South Africa, and Tanzania.

Vodafone also plans to launch the M-Pesa mobile banking service in South Africa following its success in Kenya. (See Mobile Commerce: A Loyalty Lever? and Partners Plan Money Transfer Service.)

— Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading

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