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C&W Optus Jumps the Gun on Australian WAP Service

The race to deliver Internet content to mobile wireless devices in Australia has taken an unexpected turn, with Cable & Wireless Optus looking like beating Telstra to the punch with a service by the end of the month.

C&W Optus, which is majority owned by UK telecommunications carrier Cable & Wireless, had been thought to be lagging Telstra in its research and development, with Telstra scheduled to launch its service before the end of the year.

The new C&W Optus service, called NETworker, will be initially available on the Nokia 7110 mobile handset, using the new Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). WAP is rapidly becoming the standard for delivering bandwidth-compromised content to the small screens on "smartphones" and handheld PCs, acting in the same manner as HTTP does for Web pages.

Initial content partners include newspaper and Web publisher John Fairfax Ltd, and online mall provider Sofcom, providing news, weather, stock market prices and horoscopes. NETworker users will have limited access to the mailboxes at external Internet services providers, using the Post Office Protocol (POP) to download a small amount of messages to their handsets.

Paul O'Sullivan, managing director mobile for C&W Optus, said the company would add more content as it was being converted to WAP-friendly format, and as the applications were written to deliver the data.

"We will offer movie session times and airline flight information early next year. Soon after we will move from information-based content to transactional services such as ticketing," said O'Sullivan.

The Nokia 7110 will retail for AUS$865 (US$550), or AUS$245 (US$155) with a 24 month contract from C&W Optus with call charges at 25 cents per minute (16c/min in US$). Prospective users will be able to register from 22 November, and transmissions are expected to start before the turn of the month.

Nokia assisted C&W Optus in the development of the service through its testing labs in Hong Kong, providing its WAP Server product and a "microbrowser" which is installed on the 7110 handset. This sort of alliance differs from the approach of Telstra, which has not trumpeted any partnerships with handset vendors and is working in secrecy on its wireless Internet service at its Telstra Research Laboratories in Melbourne using the UP.browser from US-based Phone.com.

Paul Schofield, senior manager for future technologies at Telstra, could not commit to a release time frame for Telstra's service when contacted late last week.Indeed, Telstra has experienced some conflict with Ericsson, as the latter has been the most vocal phone manufacturer on WAP in Australia so far.

Ericsson has hosted industry gatherings to recruit developers to the cause which it calls "WAP Forums" despite the real WAP Forum - the standards body which defined the WAP protocol - being brought to Australia under Telstra's sponsorship in an event on December 5.