French mobile firm Orange will launch a programme of unlimited GPRS (general packet radio service) next week in France.

This will give users unlimited access to mobile phone services over its GPRS networks for a monthly flat-fee. UK and other European countries are bound to follow.

Beginning on Thursday Orange subscribers in France will be charged €6 (around £4) for unlimited mobile access to data services such as news, entertainment and email using the much-villified WAP technology over the GPRS network, said Orange UK spokesman Stuart Jackson.

Orange is hoping its price plan will kickstart the mass market for wireless data by encouraging users to see what sort of services GPRS has to offer, Jackson said. In a market where mobile operators have traditionally charged for internet access by the minute or by data quantity, Orange is hoping it will be able to lure its rivals to offer competitive pricing industry-wide, Jackson said.

Orange plans to extend the service throughout Europe in the third quarter, though no decision has been made regarding pricing or if access will be unlimited, he said.

"The tariff principle will be the same [in the rest of Europe as in France], but it hasn't been decided if it's going to be unlimited access or if there will be a limit to the number and size of data downloads over the month. It is all market-dependent — the UK market is very different from the Dutch market, which is different from the Swedish market," Jackson said.

In the past year, the mobile device market has been in decline due to saturation, particularly in western Europe. Operators have therefore been trying to expand the market to include data as well as voice by encouraging users to buy GPRS handheld devices needed to access data services.

To highlight what Orange believes will be one of the most popular data services, it is launching the unlimited pricing plan in France the day before the start of the World Cup, with an advertising campaign starring French soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane, Jackson said.

Jackson conceded that, apart from sports scores and the purchase of tickets for events, data services remain a limited proposition. "It is accurate to say that WAP services over GPRS are in the early stages," he said.