Bell, Telus meet Rogers’ speed head-on


Rogers Communications will only be able to boast of having North America’s fastest wireless data network for a couple of weeks.

Next month Bell Canada and Telus Corp. will follow Rogers and launch an HSPA Plus-based network, offering customers the potential – under ideal conditions – of downloading data at up to 21 Megabits per second.
The two telcos also confirmed Tuesday that they will be carrying the hotly-demanded iPhone among their handsets, ending Rogers monopoly on the unit. They were mum on handset and data plan pricing.
The announcement means Bell and Telus will be ready to aggressively sell their new network during the December holiday period, traditionally one of the most lucrative in the cellphone business. According to Bell, more handsets are sold then than at any other time of the year.

It will also mean, as expected, they will be ready to exploit some of the international roaming revenue that will accrue during next February’s Vancouver Winter Olympics. HSPA phones are compatible with GSM-base phone sold in most countries around the world.

For years Bell and Telus operated CDMA-based networks, leaving Rogers not only to clean up on international roaming from GSM users but also getting access to leading-edge handsets like the iPhone, which doesn’t have a CDMA version.

Fed up with that, and facing new wireless entrants who have promised to start business either late this year or early 2010, Bell and Telus last year agreed to build an HSPA overlay on top of their CDMA networks – essentially running two networks at the same time.

According to the Bell press release, the new network will immediately be accessible to 93 per cent of the populace.

Another reason Bell and Telus aren’t sticking with CDMA is that HSPA also offers an easier path to the next generation of high-speed data service called LTE (Long Term Evolution), which could offer speeds of at least 100 Mbps.

Rogers HSPA Plus service became available Sept. 28, triggering a speed race industry analysts believe will continue for several years. HSPA Plus (also known as HSPA+ or HSPA Enhanced) only starts at 21Mbps. Equipment maker LM Ericsson of Sweden has tested the technology up to 42 Mbps.

Now the question is whether the three new wireless entrants who won AWS licences at last year’s spectrum auction – Globalive Wireless, DAVE Wireless and Videotron – will also have HSPA Plus networks, or go with the slower 7.2 Mpbs HSPA standard for the time being. So far they have been coy about which version they will launch with.
However, Iain Grant, managing director of SeaBoard Group, a Montreal-based telecommunications consultancy, noted in an interview that DAVE Wireless’s business plan calls for it to go after the estimated 30 per cent of Canadians who don’t have cellphones, meaning the speed of its network isn’t important.

(Public Mobile, the fourth new entrant that is close to starting business, bought PCS spectrum and will have a CDMA-based network.It, too, is also going after Canadians who so far think they can’t afford cellphones.)

First, however, they have to get their carrier licences approved by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The CRTC will decide Globalive’s status on Oct. 23 after a controversial hearing this month. The commission hasn’t said when it will deal with DAVE or Videotron’s applications.

Industry Canada has already approved their spectrum licence.

“The new network will be ready to roll in November, quickly notching up competition and wireless choice for consumers and businesses across the country and keeping Canada at the forefront of wireless innovation,” George Cope, president and CEO of Bell Canada, said in a news release announcing the impending network.

“The new HSPA network executes on our strategic imperatives to accelerate wireless in Canada and to invest in next-generation broadband networks – supporting our goal for Bell to be recognized by customers as Canada’s leading communications company.”

Iain Grant of the SeaBoard Group cautioned that buyers shouldn’t expect that the increased competition means the price of iPhones will markedly change. Handset pricing will be constrained by agreements with Apple, he said.

Nor will the iPhone help Bell and Telus shift subscribers from their CDMA networks to the new HSPA Plus service, he said. Between two-thirds and three quarters of their subscribers are on fixed contracts and probably have handsets that are less than two years old, making them unlikely to move.
However, companies “desperate for iPhones” or who have staff that do a lot of international traveling and need GSM-based phones will be among the first to shift.

Reports that the two telcos will carry iPhones was greeted with delight last night at a Toronto meeting of MobileMonday, a networking organization for mobile users and developers.

“The more people who have my favourite phone the better,”; said Graham Fraser, director of business development at VideoFlip, a Toronto creator of corporate videos.

For Randall Howard, a partner at Verdexus Capital Partners, an IT financial management and venture capital firm with offices in Toronto, “it means we have a level playing field – Rogers, Bell and Telus offering the same thing, so there’s going to be increased competition … So suddenly the game has changed. Mobile has gone from a monopoly to a truly competitive market (for iPhone) such as we see in other countries.

“It can only be good for consumers.”

Rogers will make a competitive response right away, he predicted, perhaps lowering its handset or data pricing or cutting or eliminating system access fees.
However, Robert Ferchat, former head of Bell Mobilty head who is now chairman of an online transaction processing startup, cautioned that the ability to sell iPhones won’t necessarily be a bonanza for the carriers. “The carrier has to find a way to put value-add into the iPhone,” he said.

“If it’s just a conduit [for other companies’ applications], that is a commodity … It’s not going to be a major source of revenue for them as it will be for Apple.”

Right now Rogers is merely “a distribution system” for the popular handsets,” he argued. “What you need is to put applications on iPhone that add value so you [the carrier] can get paid for it.

“If you’re only the conduit, you can be replaced.”


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