How Telus runs three wireless networks

There’s a blue glass office tower in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough that could be the home of an insurance company. In fact, it once was.

Today, though,15 of its floors house some of the Ontario offices and testing lab of Telus Corp., including that of Eros Spadotto, the telco’s executive vice-president of strategy.

A genial man, he’s responsible for wireless and wireline engineering and strategy – including negotiating with equipment suppliers – with a staff of 600 in Toronto and Edmonton.

That includes overseeing three wireless networks: A new HSPA+ network launched last November, plus the telco’s existing PCS and iDEN MiKE networks. By comparison, BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada has two networks and Rogers Communications Inc. has one. Spadotto shrugs it off, explaining Telus has a “maniacal” focus on costs.

“I can tell you we run with less people than some of the big competitors. If you think about it, where do costs come from? Buying equipment, running equipment with all the bits and pieces that come with it, like hydro and space and HVAC, leases and things like that, and they come from people. If you have a focus on those three things you can drive the costs down to comparable or better, you’re golden.”

When it came to the HSPA+ network, Telus didn’t trim corners, he says. Realizing that backhaul capacity is vital to keep up with future demand, the company put 100 Gigabit Ethernet from the core to base stations.

“The one thing that was pretty clear to us as we built the new network is that we cannot behave as an incumbent,” he says. “The natural kind of tendencies of an incumbent is ‘I’m going to build everything inside a shelter at the base of the tower, I have a fairly prolific copper-based network that can take T1s, I’ll use that. I can multi-couple my new network on my old antennas.’ We completely threw that away.”

“We said we’re going to build a brand new network from the bottom up. We’re going to take advantage of the latest and greatest.” That included buying suitcase-sized base station gear from Nokia Siemens Networks and China’s Huawei Technologies Co.

“In some cases we pushed the boundary too far in terms of how much of the latest and greatest we chose,” he admits. “So our network is world-leading in terms of how we built it, but it takes advantage of what an incumbent had, which is lots and lots of locations where you can build cell sites”

To get an idea of the change in technology over the years, Spadotto took a reporter to a room in the building that houses gear for each of the three networks. For the iDEN network, a 3U-sized shelf with a power amplifier, receiver and controller from Motorola Inc. can only serve three users. A single refrigerator-sized box of 1990s access gear from the former Lucent Technologies for the PCS network can support 128 calls. By contrast a small vertical rack of suitcase sized radios for the UMTS/HSPA network handles hundreds of calls at a time.

There’s another difference as well. Because of its size, the PCS equipment has to sit at the base of a tower, connected to antennas by a long coax cable, which leaks some signal. The UMTS gear is small enough to sit at the top of a tower, slashing the coax signal loss.

On another floor is Telus’ wireless lab  with four isolated RF chambers for testing handsets and software, Nearby is a huge room for testing core switches, which used to house the insurance company’s data centre. For the PCS network there are huge racks of switches from Lucent and Nortel Networks, each purpose-built and therefore the components can’t be swapped. By comparison the UMTS/HSPA switches are not only compact enough to fit into one cabinet, because the gear is increasingly IP-based components can be mixed from several equipment makers.

Spadotto’s been in telecommunications since 1984, when he graduated from the University of Windsor after earning a bachelor of applied science and electrical engineering degree and joined Bell Mobility.

There he rose to senior management positions in engineering and marketing before joining Toronto-based wireless competitor Clearnet Communications Inc. in 1995 as chief technology officer and chief information officer.

Clearnet had taken over the previously mentioned insurance company space for a simple reason: That’s where the data centre was, and its raised floors and air conditioning were ideally suited for a wireless company’s needs. When Vancouver-based Telus bought Clearnet in 2000 to give it national coverage, Spadotto became VP and CTO of Telus Mobility.

“We’re really entering a phase [in telecommunications] of what I call the hyper-connected model,” Spadotto said, “where everything will be connected to the [cellular data] network” he said. All that’s preventing it from happening is the cost of chipsets.

Wireless will evolve into a “network of networks,” he said, with the macro network linking to so-called personal area networks, created by Wi-Fi routers in your home or from a laptop. “As you walk into your home your devices will synch with your devices, as opposed to taking advantage of the macro network,” he said.

To some degree, that will help take the load off cellular networks. Some operators around the world, including AT&T in the U.S. use femtocells — wireless access points that use licenced spectrum — for that very purpose.

However, Spadotto dismisses their importance, at least in this country as “a technology in search of an application.”

Femtocells work in Europe, he said, where the many concrete and stone small buildings and residences means wireless signals need a considerable boost.

Here, signals easily pass through North American “stick frame houses.” And femtocells eat up valuable spectrum.

Far better for controlling wireless and wireline traffic, he says, is policy or traffic management. Some consumers say carriers should keep their hands off the traffic, an idea Spadotto has little time for.

“To me as an engineer that is the most farcical thing I’ve ever heard,” he says, “because we’ve managed network flow since the beginning of time. It doesn’t matter what the network is —whether it’s a telecom network or municipal water supply.” So policy management means VoiP should have more priority than BitTorrent.

As the interview wound up, Spadotto was asked if he’s baffled by anything. “The euphoria for technology around the world,” he replied. “People will make announcements and they’ll jump on bandwagons and so often it’s premature. People really do not understand evolving ecosystems. Choices we make are not about technology, they’re about ecosystems.”

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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