Bell Mobility orders up Data to Go

To do list: check e-mail, enter a couple of appointments into Outlook or Notes, book plane tickets for a business trip, make a dinner reservation, perform on-line banking, respond to voice mail and finally hang up PCS phone.

While the above list of actions is typical of the way most business users utilize computing resources, what is not typical is doing it all over a PCS phone — at least not yet.

Under the banner of Digital Data To Go, Bell Mobility and assorted partners have begun to deliver exactly that functionality over the digitalized air waves, and it is functionality that Bell Mobility officials say the country is more than ready for.

“Digital data really is an exciting field that will propel us into a new level of marvellous,” expounded BCE Mobile Communications Inc. chair and CEO Randall J. Reynolds. “We are at the point where we can provide people with powerful tools, and permit them to communicate in whatever way they choose, whenever they want, and wherever they happen to be. We are reaching this time when the wireless industry in Canada is growing at an accelerated rate, and is poised for even more dramatic growth.”

Reynolds noted that 1998 saw a record number of Canadians signing up for wireless phone service and added that sometime this summer the market penetration point should hit 20 per cent.

“When the technology hits the 20-per-cent level, it starts to fundamentally change the way people use the technology.”

According to Reynolds, wireless technology has already passed through two stages of development — first, traditional voice use, then the addition of differentiated services such as messaging and voice recognition — and is on the brink of its third evolution — the delivery of digital data services.

Industry analysts concur that the 20-per-cent penetration level is an important milestone, but they are a little more hesitant than the Bell Mobility executives to resoundingly proclaim that digital data services, in their present form, will be a bona fide success.

“Everybody knows that wireless data is coming, but nobody knows now what it will be,” offered John Riddell, a telecommunications analyst with Angus Telemanagement Group Inc. in Ajax, Ont. “We all know that we’re heading to third-generation (3G) wireless, and I think Bell Mobility is right to begin now and to start using what we have.”

George Karidis, associate director with Brockville, Ont.-based The Yankee Group in Canada, also agreed that the Digital Data to Go and Revolv services are a good place to start, but added that nobody can really know what the future will hold for wireless data adoption.

“I think there is a market for this, but it is hard to predict how quickly it will grow. Everybody was wrong about the Internet [growth] and will always be wrong. This is just the same…I’ll wait six months to see what Bell Mobility can do with this market.”

Karidis added that at present the PCS/digital mobile phone market is estimated to have approximately two-per-cent penetration in Canada.

In order to increase penetration rates and promote the use of its digital data services, Bell Mobility is attempting to make the offer as attractive to users as possible. Outside of regular per-minute phone usage charges, the company is not charging for either personal services or corporate access. A connector kit, which consists of a serial cable and adapter to connect the wireless phone to a PDA or laptop, a start up CD-ROM and a couple of user guides is being sold, as is a cradle to attach the PCS phone directly to a laptop.

Connectors and hardware will play an important role in the adoption of digital data services, according to analysts. At present, the services offered by Bell Mobility can all be accessed either on data-ready PCS phones, or on laptops and PDAs using the PCS phones as wireless modems. But, of course, small phones with screens only large enough to hold a few lines of text don’t give corporate users the same type of Windows environment they are used to seeing. Instead, even with Bell Mobility’s PCS Mobile Browser, access looks more like the pre-Netscape Internet of a few years ago.

Bell Mobility, however, is already seeing beyond simple text and looking for hardware partners to provide higher-end equipment. One of those is Qualcomm Inc., whose pdQ device blends CDMA phone functionality with a Palm computing platform.

Angus Telemanagement’s Riddell likes the idea of the pdQ, and said he believes it has what it takes to become a hit.

“The idea of merging a wireless handset with a PalmPilot is a good idea. There’s a good chance it has a future, because it takes two known winners and consolidates them into one,” Riddell said.

In addition to a better GUI, Riddell noted that the digital data industry still has to contend with slow wireless transmission speeds, a fact that Karidis wholeheartedly agrees with.

“14.4Kbps (the transmission speed being used for the Digital Data to Go service) is a great entry point, but it will be wireless’s weakness,” Karidis said. “What will be wireless’s weakness is that it will always lag wireline. Wireless will always lag what we do on the desktops.”