Rogers sets the beat with LTE in Ottawa

OTTAWA – To celebrate flipping the “on” switch for Canada’s first LTE wireless service here, Rogers Communications Inc. squeezed a group of young dancers before a room full of reporters.

It wasn’t clear what jiving had to do with wireless, unless Rogers was jumping Thursday over the fact that it has beat arch competitors Telus Corp. and BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada to the launch of the next-generation service that Rogers says will deliver average download speeds of at least 12 Megabits per second. [To see a video of the dance team, click here.]

It also cautions actual speeds will depend on network congestion and environmental conditions.

Long Term Evolution is a technology that promises wireless data speeds of up to 150 Mbps under ideal conditions, about double the maximum that will be achievable under the current HSPA+ technology that Rogers, Bell and Telus currently use on their fastest networks.

Then again, it was a day when a number of things weren’t clear. LTE-capable handsets from Samsung and HTC are coming later this year, said Rob Bruce, president of the cable company’s communications division. But he couldn’t say anything about their form factors or capabilities.

When are we going to see LTE-enabled smart phones from Apple or Research In Motion? Ask those companies, said Bruce.

What are Rogers plans for the Inukshuk partnership with Bell, which was supposed to use the spectrum for extending wireless to underserved areas? Bruce said at least some of that spectrum will be used by his company for LTE. Beyond that he wouldn’t say.

Rogers’ LTE service will come to Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal “in the fall.” (People in those cities have until 9 a.m. July 11 to reserve in advance a laptop modem for the service.)

As for what advantage businesses will see from LTE, Bruce was vague. “Business that are facilitated by things like video conferencing and other things,” will benefit. “These faster speeds make those kinds of applications, especially video applications, a thousand times better than they’ve ever been before.”

Statements like that won’t be good enough to impress organizations, said Lawrence Surtees, IDC Canada’s vice-president of communications research, who was at the launch. Rogers, Bell and Telus will have to make a better case to them for LTE than throwing speed numbers, he said in an interview.

For example, in a short demonstration for reporters of LTE’s capabilities, Rogers outfitted a bus to drive around the block from the press conference site showing how its new network can deliver a moving signal to a large screen HDTV. What was on the screen? Not business apps but games and a movie trailer.

In particular, he is critical of the pricing for LTE service that Rogers announced, which range from $45 a month for 1.5 Gigabytes of data to $90 a month for 9 Gigabytes. Subscribers can opt for a flexible plan that starts at the low level and automatically bounces up or down depending on use. Going over 9 Gb, however, incurs a $10 a gigabit penalty.

With LTE’s speed and low latency approaching wireline, organizations will wonder why they should pay a premium for wireless, he said, particularly because the price per bit of wireless data should be coming down.

“There’s going to be IT managers who have both wired and wireless networks saying to Rogers, Bell and Telus, ‘We’re fed up with separate contracts, separate billing (for wired and wireless). Give us one pricing scheme, one bucket that treats a bit as a bit.’

“Whoever is first out of the gate with that is going to hit a real demand.”

Bell has already said it will launch LTE service in select cities before the end of the year, while Telus has said its LTE service will debut early next year.

Bell’s rival in Quebec, cable operator Videotron Ltee., has said nothing about its LTE plans, nor have startups Wind Mobile and Mobilicity.

Arguably, the timing advantage Rogers has over Bell and Telus isn’t much because there’s only one way for subscribers to use the Rogers LTE service – with a data stick for laptops from Sierra Wireless. Rogers won’t have broader coverage until next year. By launching in a few months, Bell and Telus have the opportunity to start with bigger networks and the possibility of starting with handsets in their lineups as well.

Still, for the time being, and in one city, Rogers is the owner of one of the few commercial LTE networks in North America.

That’s something to dance about.

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