Bell Mobility expands digital coverage area

New subscribers to Bell Mobility’s wireless phone service in Ontario and Quebec will soon be able to access data services in vast swaths of the two provinces as the BCE-owned company announced it would be investing $100 million to expand its digital PCS (personal communications services) network.

However, the majority of current subscribers will still be stuck with limited access to digital services such as e-mail and Internet browsing in only the most heavily populated areas.

That’s because Bell’s new digital area will be covered mainly through the use of 800MHz digital PCS satellite antennas, a frequency which can only be accessed with tri-mode handsets that allow users to jump back and forth between the current 1900MHz digital PCS, 800MHz analogue and 800MHz digital PCS frequencies.

At the current time, dual-mode phones for 1900MHz digital PCS and 800MHz analogue are most prevalent among current subscribers, said Brian O’Shaugnessy, the vice-president of wireless technologies for Bell Mobility.

“If you want digital services across the entire territory, you’ll need a tri-mode (handset),” he admitted.

Along with e-mail and browsing features, digital PCS benefits include better voice quality, longer-lasting battery life and billing by the second instead of by the minute.

O’Shaugnessy said the new 800Mhz digital PCS antennas can cover four times the area of 1900Mhz digital PCS antennas.

Upon completion of the expansion of its CDMA (code division multiple access) digital network, O’Shaugnessy said digital services will be available across the same footprint as its analogue network, which extends from Chicoutimi, Que. to Windsor, Ont. and along major highways farther north.

“Going forward, it means you’re able to leverage that asset in the provision of data and Internet services as well,” noted Mark Quigley, a telecom analyst with Brockville, Ont.’s The Yankee Group in Canada. “Which at the end of the day provides a little more bang for the buck than simple voice services.”

The timing of Bell’s expansion announcement is significant in that it coincided with the start of Canada’s new 1900MHhz PCS spectrum auction. Bell Mobility plans to be active in bidding for additional PCS spectrum capacity for its major urban markets as well as in Alberta and British Columbia, where it does not currently hold licences.

The PCS spectrum available in the auction is often called 2.5G (generation) wireless, in that it is a transition point to the 3G wireless spectrum that will be allotted by the Canadian government in a few years. Wireless experts predict that 3G wireless will be able to offer a panacea of digital services, with download speeds ranging in the hundreds of kilobits per second (compared to the rather poky 14.4 Kbps at which users currently access the Internet).

First trial complete

Bell Mobility said it has finished its first field trial of phase one of 3G wireless technology in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Ontario.

Dubbed 1xRTT, the company says its trial delivered voice and data speeds of up to 144 Kbps across a localized network.

“Initially everything is just the current 2G phones for the bulk of this year. As we introduce…1xRTT, it’ll initially be deployed in the urban markets (with 1900MHz PCS service) and then rolled out to all the 800 (MHz PCS) markets shortly thereafter,” O’Shaugnessy said.

In two other related announcements, Bell Mobility said it has signed a supply agreement with Sierra Wireless to introduce a wireless CDMA PC card. Available in the first quarter of this year, the Sierra Wireless Aircard 510 can be inserted into a user’s laptop or other handheld device to offer access to IP networks such as the Internet or corporate intranets.

Bell Mobility is also partnering with PacketVideo Corporation to trial wireless multimedia services on its CDMA network. The companies say trial participants will be able to receive audio-visual content on Bell Mobility devices. Much of the content to be delivered will cone from BCE properties, CTV and Sympatico-Lycos Inc.

O’Shaugnessy was quick to note that users will have access all other WML (wireless markup language) Web sites as well.

“We went though this debate when we launched our wireless Internet services,” he explained. “And from the beginning we made the decision we were not going to create a closed garden type of environment. We were going to let our customers go wherever the heck they wanted to go and find the information they believe they need.”

However, he added, “our job is to provide compelling content that makes them want to stay with us.”