Bell Mobility kicks up wireless competition

Bell Mobility says its new wireless network is a boon for Canada’s mobile set, but an industry analyst says it’s equally important to the carrier’s own future.

Bell Mobility, the wireless technology arm of Bell Canada Enterprises Inc., on Feb. 12 unveiled its Code Division Multiple Access 2000 1X Radio Transmission Technology (CDMA2000 1XRTT, or “1X”) network. It’s a wireless communication infrastructure promising fast data-transfer rates and an opportunity for the carrier to offer bandwidth-heavy applications.

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

Bell is late to the high-speed wireless game, he said. Both Rogers Communications Inc/AT&T Wireless Services Inc. 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.”

Bell’s latest effort counts as “2.5G,” the stutter step between 2G and 3G. Whereas 3G promises data transfer rates 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.”

Bell looks forward to location-based services (LBS) and “premium wireless services” such as downloadable ring tones for handsets.

As for pricing, voice services will cost the same on the new network as they did on the old-fashioned CDMA network. But although Bell plans to stay the course with pricing and charge for airtime on voice, Brian O’Shaughnessy, Bell Mobility’s vice-president, wireless technology, said it wouldn’t make sense to charge for airtime on data. So along with the new technology comes a new pricing method, wherein corporate users pay per-Megabyte and consumers pay per-download.

“As a corporate user, you’re really buying a packet…However, if you’re a consumer, let’s face it: if we tried to charge by the Kilobit to the consumer, there’s no way they’d understand that. People in the industry have trouble grasping it.”

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. By the summer Bell plans to expand the network into Canada’s major centers in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, and even further by the end of the year.

But 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 the president of BCE (Bell Canada Enterprises, Bell Mobility’s parent company) Jean Monty 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 also 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.

In the end, Chaisatien said, it’s the applications that count. Users could care less about GSM or CDMA. They simply want quick download speeds and data access everywhere. “It’s like in the wired market for high-speed (Internet access). If you’re a consumer you don’t care whether its ADSL or cable modem. Consumers don’t know and they don’t care. Give me a better price, high-speed and applications.”