Telus, Bell step up the race to national 3G

Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility, the wireless divisions of Bell Canada and Telus Corp. respectively, earlier this month announced that their competing third-generation (3G) networks are now partially available, and that national coverage will be achieved in early 2002.

Both networks are based on the CDMA2000 1xRTT standard which, according to Telus, offers data speeds as fast as 144 Kbps, or about 10 times as fast as current wireless speeds.

Bell Mobility has now completed technical trials and made its 3G mobile network available to several hundred partners and corporate customers in the Greater Toronto Area, said Charlotte Burke, the company’s vice-president of market development.

“Our footprint when we go commercial around Toronto is really a very large area that rolls around the Golden Horseshoe (the western end of Lake Ontario, from the Niagara Region to Oshawa, Ont.) Then when we turn up a new network in Western Canada, we’ll turn it up with the 1X technology ready.”

For the major cities and metropolitan areas in its territory, Burke added, Bell Mobility be operational in the first quarter of 2002 “or very soon afterwards.” It will then fill in the more rural and secondary cities “as fast as we can build them throughout the remainder of the year.”

Telus’s competing network will follow a similar testing and rollout pattern, and will also go national as soon as possible, said Mark Langton, a Toronto-based company spokesman. He added that although the arrival of Telus’s 3G network does not mark a communications revolution, it will ultimately enable a new generation of more sophisticated mobile applications.

“You’ll see location-based services where the network will know where you are and you can say, ‘Where’s the nearest bank machine?’ or ‘Where’s the nearest office of this company?’ and it will give you directions graphically on your phone screen; we’re already trialling these kinds of things,” Langton said.

Although Telus and Bell are calling their 1xRTT systems 3G, these networks are really closer to “2.5G”, said Jeremy Depow, a Kanata, Ont.-based senior analyst with the Yankee Group in Canada. That is, they are much faster than the digital phones of the second generation of wireless communication, but they fall short of 2 Mbps – his group’s definition of 3G. True 3G, he said, is likely still a few years away.

Depow also suggested that despite the possibilities offered by higher speeds, it might take some time for Canadians to catch on to 1xRTT in a big way.

“As most new technologies are when they are first introduced in the market, the most tech-savvy business people are the ones that will demand it the most. Therefore, providers like Bell, Telus and Microcell (Solutions Inc.) will gear their marketing towards business solutions: solutions that complement existing enterprise wireless needs. Through that process, the consumer market becomes more educated, prices start to drop, and then [the telcos] can go after the [consumer] portion of the market,” Depow said.

As the competition with Telus heats up in the scramble to sign up this generation of wireless users, Bell’s Burke hopes that subscribers will consider a whole range of factors, not just time-to-market.

“I’ve encouraged our corporate customers to make their decisions based on which carrier has the right application partners, and who’s proven in the past to bring meaningful applications to the market, and to some extent ignore the industry as we flex our press release muscles,” she said.