What Is GPRS (General Packet Radio Service)?

GPRS brought the internet to cell phones

Hand holding a mobile, cell phone, smart phone

Bloom Productions/Taxi / Getty Images

General Packet Radio Service is the technology that extended Global System for Mobile (GSM) voice networks with support for data features. It enabled widespread cellular internet connections for the first time. Often referred to as a 2.5G network, GPRS is gradually being phased out in favor of newer 3G, 4G, and 5G installations.

History of GPRS

GPRS was one of the first technologies that enabled a cellular network to connect with Internet Protocol networks, achieving widespread adoption in the early 2000s. The ability to browse the web from a phone at any time through always-on data networking, while taken for granted in much of the world now, was a novelty when it was introduced. GPRS is used in parts of the world where it is too costly to upgrade the cellular network infrastructure to newer alternatives.

Mobile internet providers offered GPRS data services together with voice subscription packages before 3G and 4G technologies became widespread. Customers originally paid for GPRS service according to how much network bandwidth they used to send and receive data until providers offered flat-rate use packages as is customary today.

Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE) technology (often called 2.75G) was developed in the early 2000s as an enhanced version of GPRS. EDGE is also called Enhanced GPRS or EGPRS.

The European Telecommunications Standard Institute standardized GPRS technology. GPRS and EDGE deployments are both managed under the oversight of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project.

Features of GPRS

GPRS relies on packet switching for data transmission. It operates at extremely slow speeds by today's standards — data rates for downloads range from 28 Kbps to 171 Kbps, with upload speeds even lower. By contrast, EDGE supported a download rate of 384 Kbps when it was introduced. Later, it was enhanced to about 1 Mbps.

Other features supported by GPRS include:

  • Short Message Service: Special-purpose communication protocols designed for text messaging.
  • Multimedia Messaging Service: Extensions to SMS to enable transmission of videos in addition to text.
  • Wireless Application Protocol (WAP): A specialized communication protocol for mobile browsers, now obsolete.

Deploying GPRS to customers required adding two types of hardware to existing GSM networks:

  • The Gateway GPRS Support Node connects the service provider's cellular network to the internet or another IP network. These devices manage traffic between the internal and external networks.
  • The Serving GPRS Support Node sits between the service provider's internal network and the customer-facing equipment, primarily base stations. These devices authenticate and manage phones signed on to the network and monitor usage.

The GPRS Tunneling Protocol supports the transfer of GPRS data through the existing GSM network infrastructure. GTP primary runs over User Datagram Protocol.

How to Use GPRS

To use GPRS, a cellphone and a subscription to a data plan with a provider that supports it is required.