Microcell picks up software needed for 2.5G roaming

In anticipation of rolling out its data network coast-to-coast by the end of this year, Toronto’s Microcell Connexions Inc. has signed an agreement with Tampa, Fla.’s Telecommunication Services Inc. (TSI) to utilize the company’s General Packet Radio Services Roaming Exchange (GRX) software.

GRX software enables customers using handsets built on the GPRS standard – which transmits data in packets and is built upon the ubiquitous Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) standard – to move freely between networks owned by service providers who have signed roaming agreements.

In North America, TSI is supplying its GRX software to what it says are the continent’s three largest GSM operators: Microcell, Voice Stream and Cingular Wireless, a subsidiary of Bell South.

Canada’s other GSM operator, Rogers AT&T Wireless, has not yet signed an agreement with a GRX provider. Besides TSI, Europe’s Cable and Wireless and Sonera are the two other GRX providers the GSM standards body has assigned for North America.

According to Rajov Pancholy, the president and CEO of Microcell Connexions Inc., GRX software acts like a “broker” which enables a roaming customer to connect back to the services it has on its home network.

“It’s equivalent to dialing a number back home,” Pancholy said, adding the practical uses include being able to connect back to a corporate intranet.

Microcell Connexions is a subsidiary of Montreal’s Microcell Telecommunications. Microcell Connexions’ network is used by PCS provider Microcell Solutions, which markets itself under the Fido brand name, and Waterloo, Ont.’s Research in Motion, which plans to use Microcell’s GPRS network because of its always-on capability.

GPRS is generally considered to be a bridge between the voice-based GSM standard and a future third-generation 3G wireless telephony standard, which will enable data rates possibly up to the Mbps level. Considered a 2.5G technology, GPRS is able to transmit data at up to 115Kbps but the low battery power of most telephone handsets limits this rate to less than 56Kbps.

Telecommunications analyst Lawrence Surtees of Toronto’s IDC Canada Ltd. said this data rate may hinder the development of 2.5G wireless on GSM networks.

Microcell’s competitors, Bell Mobility of Mississauga, Ont. and Burnaby, B.C.’s Telus Mobility, report that handsets using their code division multiple access (CDMA) network will be able to transmit data at up to 144Kbps.

“If I was looking to be a wireless user because I roamed, and I was making the choice (between GSM or CDMA), why would I go with the 56Kbps?” Surtees asked. “Because 3G isn’t about talking, it’s about data. Which is about more, faster.”

Pancholy responded to Surtees’ concerns by pointing out that the limited rates are only found on telephone handsets. Devices powered off laptop batteries will be able to access the full 115Kbps rate, he said.

“In all fairness, why would you need huge amounts of speed on essentially what is a phone,” Pancholy added. “It is only when we get data-specific devices that we’ll get huge amounts of speed built in.”