Industry experts divided on impact of Rogers’ new video calling service

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Canadian telecom industry observers are divided in their assessment of the video calling service for mobile phone users unveiled by Rogers Wireless Inc. on Monday.

The service enables users to view the person they are speaking to through an on-phone video screen, provided that both parties are using video telephony-enabled handsets. Rogers said it is the first company in North America to offer this service.

A technology analyst wondered if the service had any practical use beyond the “gee whiz” factor. However, a telecom consultant said the launch may serve as a springboard for various small business and enterprise applications.

Rogers, meanwhile, relied on star power to promote its new offering, using Canadian actor William Shatner of Star Trek fame as its spokesperson for the launch.

Shatner gained fame for his role as Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise in the television show Star Trek from 1966 to 1969 and in seven of the subsequent movies.

In addition to its face-to-face video calling service for mobile users, Rogers also announced an upgrade to its high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) wireless network.

The rollout is part of what the company calls the Rogers VISION Suite of services. Other services in this “suite” include:

• Video-on-demand – Access to video content from sources such as YouTube, ET Canada and CNN;

• Radio-on-demand – Access to live XM Satellite radio broadcasts;

• Rogers Mobile Television – Real-time telecast of news, weather, comedy and other TV programs, and;

• Rogers MusicStore – A source of music tracks covering various genres.

The services will be available on a video telephony-enabled handset from Samsung Electronics Co. of Korea. The Samsung A706 cell phone with a clamshell design has a built in MP3 player, a 2.0 mega pixel camera and stereo Bluetooth capability.

A Rogers press release described VISION as a “quantum leap forward in wireless communication.”

A Canadian analyst, however, offers a much more sober appraisal.

It’s doubtful if cell phone users will rush to sign up for the video calling service, noted Tony Olvet, vice-president of communication practice at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

While acknowledging the offering exhibits some thought leadership (“this is what we’ve envisioned cell phones would be someday”), he said there are practical factors to consider. “What advantages will this service provide the average cell phone user and how much will it cost?”

Rogers said the HSDPA service is available via the Samsung A706 Rogers VISION handset, the Sierra Wireless Aircard 860 and the Option GT Max 3.6 PC card.

The following pricing information was provided:

• Wireless video calls cost 25 cents per minute and are charged in addition to standard voice plans;

• With the purchase of a wireless video calling plan, subscribers will have 50 minutes each month of video calling time, with additional minutes charged at 25 cents per minute;

• A video calling plan costs $5 per month;

• For a limited time, new Rogers Wireless subscribers will receive unlimited video calling free for the duration of their term with activation of a Rogers VISION Price Plan or Rogers VISION Mobile Internet Plan.

With one of these plans and a three year term, users can get the A706 handset at an “introductory price” of $99.99.

What are adoption rates likely to be for such a service?

Olvet doesn’t believe take up will be high in Canada. He notes that just 11 per cent of Canadian computer users have a Web cam for PC-to-PC communications. He predicts adoption rates for video calling enabled phones will be much lower.

Another analyst offered a very different perspective.

“The sky’s the limit” for possible business and consumer applications of such services, according to Roberta Fox, senior partner at Fox Group, a telecommunications consultancy firm in Mount Albert, Ont.

She said Rogers is able boost its multimedia offering largely because of upgrades to its HSDPA wireless network. “Increasing network speed supports the ability to transmit bandwidth hungry content such as video.”

HSDPA is a 3G mobile telephony protocol that currently supports 1.8 Mbit/s to 14.4 Mbits/s in downlink transmission.

Rogers said improvements it made to its network enable faster data download speeds than achieved by the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) digital telephony system used by competitors.

Rogers, however, did not say what the transmission speed of its network is.

HSDPA service is now available throughout Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe region, covering an area from Oshawa to Niagara Falls. The network will be expanded to include other Canadian markets throughout 2007, a Rogers release said.

Fox envisions a variety of uses for video calling.

For instance, she said contractors would be able to use images captured via cell phone to relay descriptions of equipment, parts, or construction sites to other project collaborators.

Video capture and transmission via mobile phones could potentially also speed up insurance adjustment inspections in remote areas.

She said the ability to access TV broadcasts on mobile phones can benefit motorists and fleet drivers. “Imagine being able to access the weather channel or get a video feed from highway cameras. You can avoid a bumper-to-bumper situation even before you hit the exit ramp,” said Fox.

“Beyond the consumer-oriented perks, video calling and its accompanying services have the potential to save people time and increase their productivity and efficiency,” the analyst said.

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