Panel discusses state of wireless

For a variety of reasons, wireless technology has faced an uphill battle in North America. While Asia and Europe are embracing mobility with a passion, especially in the realm of instant messaging and voice where some areas approach 80 per cent market penetration, Canada and the United States are lagging behind.

At a panel discussion held in Toronto Tuesday, sponsored by development software maker Borland Canada, industry representatives spoke about wireless adoption rates and future areas of growth for the industry.

North America, at times, suffers from what appears to be too much competition or lack of co-operation, depending on which side of the fence you sit on. This has resulted in disparate networks that are unable or unprepared to communicate with each other. Instant messaging was supposed to be the next killer wireless application, said Stephen Jack, director, marketing business services for Rogers AT&T Wireless. But it ran into interconnectivity problems.

“Not only do you have to be my friend, you have to be my friend and a Rogers’ customer,” he said. But interconnectivity is getting better, participants agreed.

The North American lag was blamed on better networks in Europe and Asia using common protocols hampered by fewer regulatory restrictions.

However, Canada and the U.S. are two of the only countries in the world where there is no unit charge for local landline calls. If a Canadian picks up the phone, makes a local call and hangs up seven days later, there is no change to her phone bill. For the most part, citizens in Europe and Asia pay for every minute. So if the option is to pay the same price for a landline or a cell, it is a non-issue. Cell wins every time. The result is market penetration rates only dreamed about in Canada.

So will Canadians see set rates for mobile connections?

“Not in the foreseeable future,” Jack said. “[Flat rates] have been proven again and again and again to drive abuse and bring networks down.” The solution will be to offer “increasing buckets of time,” for the same or lower costs, he said. Better compression technology will also help to move data more quickly, thus reducing connection times. Because there is extensive market penetration in Europe and Asia application developers have been quick to jump on the bandwagon.

Regardless, participants stressed that there are definite benefits for moving some applications and employees to the wireless world. “[Mobile] technology is about effective and efficient communication,” Jack said.

Victor Garcia, managing principal of Compaq Global Services at Compaq Canada Corp., related a wireless story. He told the audience he was flying to Vancouver when he reazlized he needed to update a business plan ASAP. With his iPaq handheld he received an e-mail, updated the business plan and sent it on its merry way, all within a wireless environment.

Doug Cooper, country manager for Intel of Canada Inc. said business leaders need to be educated on the total benefits of ownership of wireless technology. And not all of it is strict ROI — Intel has done studies which show employees take their laptops home to work but seldom used them during train commutes. Instead, employees work when they get home, reducing the amount of time they spend with their families. With the ability to seamlessly roam between networks, employees could catch up on e-mail and other work while sitting on a train. As the beer ad says, it is all about balance.

Exactly where mobile computing will go in the next 12 months was up for debate, though the consensus was there would be little revolution and whole lot of evolution. PDAs, BlackBerries, phones with colour screens and an assortment of integrated devices will be available.

“What you want to access will drive your choice of devices,” Jack added.