If there was any doubt there’s a wireless speed race in Canada, it has been put to rest with Rogers Communications’ surprise move to quickly jump its peak download data network speed to 21Mbps.
The company now claims to be the fastest wireless operator in North America – at least for now.
Rogers said Tuesday it has started deploying HSPA Plus technology, an enhanced version of the 7.2Mbps HSPA data network it now runs in major cities. The faster service, which it had planed to offer next year, will be available to customers next month in the greater Toronto area, then expand to other cities by the middle of next year.
It wouldn’t say which cities will get the faster service next, but presumably Vancouver will be top of the list because the city will be flooded with international tourists for the Winter Olympics in February. They are expected boost wireless operators’ revenues by making lots of long-distance calls and sending photos and videos from smartphones.
Until competitors launch their HSPA networks either later this year or early next year, Rogers will have a sizeable speed advantage in areas it offers 21Mbps service. The current data networks of Bell and Telus offer peak speeds of 3.1Mbps.
But revenue, not bragging rights, is the real motive behind raising network speeds. As Nadir Mohamed, Rogers’ CEO and president told financial analysts in a conference call Tuesday, “mobile Internet is one of our biggest growth opportunities.”
The company gained 315,000 new smartphone customers in the most recent quarter, he said, including iPhone and BlackBerry users. The recession is cutting into overall wireless revenues, but Rogers’ wireless data revenues for the quarter that ended June 30 were $313 million, a 38 percent year increase over the same quarter a year ago. That represents 20 per cent of network revenues.
“With the exponential growth of smartphones, application stores, mobile Internet sticks and embedded laptops and notebooks, Canadians are embracing wireless data and services like never before,” Rob Bruce, president of Rogers Wireless, said in a news release.
The boost will let customers experience mobile broadband at speeds close to what they get at work or at home, he said. However, initially, at least, Rogers’ wireless customers will be limited to getting the fastest speed not on handsets but though wireless USB modem sticks plugged into laptops.
Rogers didn’t give details on whether its data pricing will change. Data-only plans now start at $25 a month for 500MB to $85 for 5GB. Monthly voice fees are extra.
“It’s impressive because we will be on the cutting edge of wireless download speeds compared to the world,” commented Amit Kaminer, a Toronto-based researcher for SeaBoard Group, a telecommunications consultancy. “It’s impressive in this harsh economic times they’re putting more resources into their network.”
On the other hand, he added, “Rogers might be the first to market [at 21Mbps], but they won’t be the only be the only one.” And competitors might boost their network speeds not merely to match but to exceed Rogers’ standard.
The move can be seen as Rogers’ attempt to steal speed bragging rights ahead of the HSPA network launches of competitors. Bell and Telus are finishing construction of their new shared HSPA network, which at least one industry insider believes will be launched this year, before the publicly-announced date of early 2010. Meanwhile new wireless operators DAVE Wireless, Globalive Wireless and Videotron are trying to start operations either late this year or early next year.
So far for competitive reasons most of these operators have been vague on which version of HSPA and what speed their data networks will run at. Often spokesmen will say their companies will have the latest version of HSPA, which has a maximum download speed of 14.4Mbps.
On Tuesday after the Rogers announcement Marie-Eve Villeneuve, Videotron’s director of corporate communications, said it was too early to speak about the speed of its new data network. Service is still scheduled to start next spring, she said.
Last month DAVE Wireless said its network will be HSPA Plus. In a recent interview, Globalive Wireless CTO Marius Armeanca said his network will be based on standard HSPA with a maximum launch speed of 14.4Mbps. Moving to HSPA Plus would depend on customer demand, he said at the time.
In an interview after the Rogers announcement, Globalive Wireless chairman Anthony Lacavera was coy about the impact the news will have on his networks’ launch speed. “We don’t see a need to make a modification at this time,” he said.
However, when asked how fast Globalive will move to match Roger’s fastest speed, he replied, “We may come out ahead of them.” He added that all-Internet Protocol-based network, being built by Nokia Siemens Networks, will be flexible enough to quickly meet the bandwidth needs of customers.
Globalive will offer two products: A pre-paid line branded Yak and aimed at customers who largely want only voice service, and a full-featured post-paid brand whose subscribers will also want data service. “We anticipate bandwidth to ramp” quickly among those subscribers, he said. “There’s an enormous demand curve amongst Canadians for access to incremental bandwidth.” He repeated that the company will launch either late this year or early next year in several cities.
Data network speeds depend on a number of factors including the number of people on the network. For example, Rogers said that on its current 7.2Mbps network, average peak speeds would be in the 4-5Mbps range for a person standing still. Someone moving would see download speeds of around 2Mbps.
Faster data speeds help handset and laptop users transmit and receive bandwidth-consuming applications such as video.
While HSPA Plus starts at 21Mbps, carrier equipment manufacturer Ericsson recently demonstrated the technology can go up to 48Mbps. According to Dragan Nerandzic, CTO of Ericsson Canada, that capability will be available for carriers to buy at the end of this year.
Around the world, the first operators to commercially deploy HSPA Plus are Australia’s Telstra, Singapore’s StarHub and Austria’s A1.
HSPA Plus is a stepping stone to the next wireless technology, LTE (Long Term Evolution), which promises peak download speeds of over 100Mbps. It can get such speeds because LTE is an all-Internet protocol-based technology and can take advantage of efficiencies that IP offers.
Industry analysts and wireless operators predict that general deployment of LTE networks won’t start until 2011. Users will likely be limited until 2012 to accessing the network on laptops, after which LTE-capable handsets will hit the market. In the U.S. AT&T plans to begin LTE trials in 2010, with deployment in 2011.
However, some operators aren’t waiting. In the U.S., Verizon Wireless, whose current network is based on CDMA technology that peaks at 3.1Mbps – as are the current Bell and Telus networks – is leaping straight to LTE. That’s largely because it’s biggest competitor, AT&T, will start to roll out its HSPA 7.2Mbps network at the end of this year. Verizon expects to test its new network this year and commercially begin service next year. However, its timetable has slipped once already.
How soon Canadian operators will shift to LTE is less clear. If Verizon sees popularity for its new network, and increased revenue, they will be tempted. But some industry analysts say incumbent Canadian wireless companies such as Rogers, Bell and Telus have so far been conservative in their technology strategies, seeing no need to be on the leading edge. They argue that because HSPA Plus can go up to 42Mbps, there’s no need to rush to LTE.
Johanne Lemay, co-president of Lemay-Yates Associates, a Montreal telecommunications consultancy, said Bell and Telus could have followed Verizon and gone straight to LTE. They didn’t, she believes, because HSPA is a known technology while LTE isn’t.
In a conference call with financial analysts last week, AT&T chief financial officer Richard Lidner said it isn’t in a rush to deploy LTE. “There’s always a period of time where there are issues and bugs with the software and with the hardware,” he said, “and we want to make sure those are shaken out so that as we begin to deploy LTE, that the platform is stable. And we also want to make sure that there are a sufficient number of devices available in LTE at that point, so that we can — as we deploy it, we can immediately begin to move traffic into it. “
On the other hand, Nadine Manjaro, senior analyst for wireless infrastructure at ABI Research is baffled by the Bell-Telus strategy. “I don’t understand the move to HSPA for those operators,” she said in a recent interview. “I think once Verizon rolls out LTE and has the kinks out, you’ll see more operators move to LTE even faster.” ABI foresees there will be 7.4 million LTE subscribers around the world this year, increasing to 33 million in 2010 and 73 million in 2011.
Regardless of when a wireless operator increases data network speed or how fast, there has to be demand for it, cautions Ian Laing, vice-president of North American sales for handset maker Nokia, who advises carriers. Customers want to know if handsets are available to take advantage of the higher speed, how much will they cost, how much extra will data cost, how their lives will be better, he said.
“If the answers to those questions are not clear,” he said, “then the speed story starts to ring hollow.”