Rogers launching next-gen wireless service in two weeks

Two more weeks. That’s how long you’ll have to wait be able to download data on the Internet at up to 21 megabytes per second.

Rogers Communications said Monday that its HSPA network has now been upgraded from 7.2 Mpbs to the faster HSPA Plus (also called HSPA Enhanced) in five cities – Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary – with no change in data rates. Other major areas in the company’s coverage will be upgraded by the middle of next year.

But while the network is ready, devices to take advantage of it aren’t quite here yet. Today subscribers can pre-order the ZTE USB modems for laptops that will make the higher speeds possible – but the devices won’t be delivered until Sept. 28.

“This new network means millions of Canadians will enjoy access to the fastest wireless speeds in North America,” Bob Berner, Rogers’ chief technology officer, told reporters at a pre-launch demonstration Monday, “comparable to what you get on a desktop PC in a business or home with (fixed) high speed Internet.”

If the HSPA Plus network isn’t available, the modem shifts down to the fastest available speed on the Rogers network, or, if the user is roaming out of the country, to the fastest speed on the local network.

As to whether subscribers can ever get to 21 Mpbs, that will depend on a number of factors including the number of people on the network and proximity to a base station. At the mid-morning demo in the basement theatre at Rogers’ Toronto headquarters, speeds of up to 16.32 Mbps were achieved at Speedtest.net, an evaluation Web site, with a laptop using an HSPA Plus modem. By comparision a laptop using an HSPA got only 5.6 Mpbs.

The entire Rogers building – including the basement – is wired for HSPA Plus, Berner said. “This is probably the worst place to be,” he added, because of the number Rogers staff who would normally be on the network. Still, he said, a subscriber doesn’t have to be outside to get coverage in many cities. A number of underground public pathways in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have wireless base stations by Rogers.

The new ZTE MF 668 USB modems, dubbed Rocket Sticks by Rogers, cost $74.99 on a minimum two year data plan, or $199 without a plan. By comparison, the older 7.2 Mpbs HSPA modems are free on a two year plan and will continue to be available for those who feel that speed is good enough.

The ZTE MF 668 runs on HSPA Plus, EDGE and GSM networks. It includes a Micro SD memory card slot and comes with drivers for Windows 2000 and up and Mac OSX 10.4 and above.

Rogers’ data plans haven’t changed: They start at $25 a month for using 500 MB of data and go up to $80 a month for using up to 5 Gb of data, plus a monthly access fee. Nor have the the flex data plans changed, which vary according to the amount of data a subscriber uses.

For the time being, a USB modem is the only way to get onto Rogers’ next generation wireless network. HSPA Plus-enabled smartphones, personal digital assistants, laptops and netbook will eventually come, but Berner couldn’t say when.

It isn’t clear how long Rogers will be able to claim to have the fastest wireless network in North America. Bell and Telus will soon unveil their new high-speed wireless network, but they have been coy about whether it will be HSPA- or HSPA Plus-based.

In the U.S., the fastest portable service at the moment comes from Clearwire, whose WiMAX-based Clear service delivers wireless download speeds of up to 10 Mbps. However, wireless WiMAX roaming is still in its infancy. Even though there are only six HSPA Plus-based networks around the world, there are many more HSPA-based networks.
[Last night Craig Wireless announced it has started to build a WiMAX-based network in Vancouver. The company said in a news release that Motorola is the equipment supplier. There were no details on when commercial service will start. Craig has WiMAX licences covering southern B.C. and Winnipeg.]

Late this year Verizon will begin trials of an LTE-based service, which promises download speeds up to 100 Mbps. AT&T will start its HSPA service at the end of the year.

As for when Rogers will shift to LTE now that the HSPA Plus network is well underway, Berner was cautious. LTE doesn’t have a firm standard yet, he pointed out, and is a technology still in trials. It will be “some years” before LTE-enabled handsets and mobile devices hit the market.

In the meanwhile, there’s no rush: HSPA Plus can go up to 42 Mbps, say some telecom equipment makers.