Bell Mobility kicks up wireless competition

Bell Mobility says its new wireless network will be a speed demon for Canada’s mobile workers, but ironically, analysts point out that the carrier was slow to market the infrastructure.

Bell Mobility, the wireless technology arm of Bell Canada, last month unveiled its Code Division Multiple Access 2000 1X Radio Transmission Technology (CDMA2000 1XRTT, or “1X”) network, a wireless communication infrastructure promising fast data transfer rates and an opportunity for the service provider to offer bandwidth-heavy applications.

Bell’s latest effort counts as “2.5G,” the stutter step between 2G and 3G. Whereas 3G promises data transfer rates of up to 2Mbps, Bell’s 1X network offers only 144Kbps. The carrier claims an average “cruising speed” of 86Kbps.

That’s fast enough for wireless file transfers among corporate users, e-mailing and even multi-player video games, said Pierre Blouin, Bell Mobility’s president and CEO.

“It will help people do more, and do it faster,” he said during a press conference in Toronto. “It will make communicating open and interactive…more personal.”

Added Warren Chaisatien, an analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto, 1X also means Bell now enjoys a “level playing field” with competitors.

Bell is, however, late to the high-speed wireless game, he said. Both Rogers AT&T Wireless and Microcell Telecommunications Inc. already offer data transfer rates of 114Kbps on their Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) networks. Rogers said its system was up and running in January. Microcell boasted the same last April.

Before 1X, Bell’s CDMA network topped out at 14.4Kbps.

Now that the network is 1X-enhanced, however, Bell can compete, Chaisatien said. “And it opens up a whole lot of applications for the business. Maybe in a year or so – and I’m being optimistic here – you’ll see even faster rates at 3G.”

The provider teamed up with Compaq Computer Corp., which is working on a location-based service (LBS) platform for the 1X network. LBS offers services based on the user’s location.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) Canada Ltd. is building corporate application services. Oracle Corp. announced a “mobile-enabled e-business suite” for 1X. And Nortel Networks Ltd. is credited with designing the 1X infrastructure.

Kyocera Wireless Corp. offers the first 1X-ready handset in the Kyocera 2255 cell phone. Soon to follow is the Samsung SCH-N370, another 1X-ready handset. Sierra Wireless Inc., meanwhile, designed a 1X digital card for handheld computers like Compaq’s iPaq and HP’s Jornada. The card turns these erstwhile-disconnected devices into wireless Web browsers.

With the new technology comes a new billing method. Rather than count airtime, Bell plans to count the amount of data downloaded. The 1X data rate plan for corporate users costs $25 per month for 3MB of data.

Mark Quigley, an analyst with The Yankee Group in Canada, a research firm in Kanata, Ont., said he was pleased with the download speeds he experienced during a 1X demonstration, saying “it was pretty much what you’d expect from a (wire-line) dialup connection, maybe a little better.”

The 1X network spans the Greater Toronto Area for the moment. Chaisatien said that during a recent trial run he experienced lower data transfer rates the further he got from downtown T.O.

Bell plans to expand the network by the summer into Canada’s major centres in Alberta, B.C., Ontario and Quebec, and even further by the end of the year. Blouin said the firm would rely on its CDMA network-sharing agreement made with Telus Mobility late last year to extend coverage to Alberta and B.C.

But IDC Canada’s Chaisatien was skeptical of Bell’s expansion plans. “I don’t think they will go for that if it doesn’t make sense to do it. In fact [Jean Monty, president of Bell Mobility parent company BCE Inc.] said about the high-speed (wired) access market, Bell Canada would pull back its expansion plan and focus on ‘profitable markets.'” Chaisatien figures Bell Mobility would do the same if demand weren’t as strong as predicted.

Whereas Bell Mobility chose to ramp up its CDMA network with 1X technology, Rogers and Microcell use a fundamentally different protocol in GSM. The companies boast that GSM is quickly becoming the global wireless system of choice.

Did Bell miss the boat by not porting to GSM? Blouin didn’t seem to think so. He noted how China chose CDMA technology for its wireless landscape, and that many carriers in the U.S. prefer it to GSM.

Quigley figures it makes sense for Bell to stick with CDMA, considering the carrier’s investment in legacy CDMA equipment. As for the GSM competitors, Microcell from the start chose the so-called global standard, he said.

Rogers, on the other hand, started with a Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) network. “The problem with TDMA was there was no clear migration path to 2.5G and 3G service,” Quigley said, so the company had to jump to GSM if it wanted to keep up.

Not everything is new with Bell’s 1X network. Quigley said Bell’s decision to continue using CDMA technology reinforces a frustrating status quo for end-users. Since some carriers use CDMA and others use GSM, consumers can’t switch between carriers as easily as they might like. GSM-ready phones don’t work on CDMA networks and vice versa.