Is a wireless speed war about to erupt in Canada?
When the country’s big three wireless providers launched their HSPA+ data networks last fall boasting maximum speeds of 21 Mpbs, everyone knew that was just the starting point for a race.
At least one equipment manufacturer has said HSPA+ can be pushed over 100 Mbps, so it was only a matter of time before someone here pushed the accelerator down.
On Tuesday, Vancouver-based Telus Corp. became the first. It said it will offer download data speeds of up to 42 Mbps under ideal conditions using a channel bonding technology from Huawei Techologies Co. Ltd. called Dual Cell, which multiplexes two carrier signals into one. Huawei is one of Telus’ two access radio suppliers.
According to the GSM Association’s Wireless Intelligence database, a source of industry statistics, only three operators around the world have launched dual carrier HSPA+ technology. Another four have said publicly they will have it this year.
The technology will start to be rolled out “in a matter of weeks,” said Jim Johannsson, Telus’ director of media relations.
However, Telus subscribers can’t take advantage of the speed yet, because none of the wireless devices it sells are Dual Cell-capable. In fact Telus admits in a news release devices won’t be available until the first quarter of next year.
That led telecommunications consultant Iain Grant of the SeaBoard Group to say the announcement is right now “much more of an advertising war” than a speed war.
“It’s all very well to have the capability,” he said, but “one has to wonder if this time the chicken came before the egg.”
Asked why boost the network so far ahead of the availability of devices, Johannsson said that having the network ready when the devices can be bought is better than having devices with no place to go.
There is no doubt wireless subscribers are increasing their use of data as more smart phones come to market, but Telus’ HSPA+ service has only been running for nine months. So why push the network speed up now?
“It’s important to us to maintain our leadership position in Canada’s fastest mobile network,” replied Johannsson.
It’s isn’t clear how soon Telus’ wireless network partner, BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada, and their arch rival Rogers Communications Inc. announce they will boost maximum speeds to 42 Mbps.
Julie Smithers, a Bell spokesman said the carrier has been testing 42 Mbps technology internally, and will add outside tests this month. “In short, no one is ahead of Bell in testing this technology,” she said. She couldn’t say when the carrier would start a commercial upgrade.
Telus’ move comes as several wireless carriers in the U.S. are skipping HSPA+ and are preparing to deploy the next generation of technology, Long Term Evolution (LTE), which promises speeds under ideal conditions of over 100 Mpbs. Verizon Wireless has said it will start commercial LTE service in select cities this fall, possibly followed by MetroPCS by the end of the year, while AT&T Inc. will offer LTE next year. T-Mobile USA unwrapped its HSPA + network in March, with a maximum speed of 21 Mpbs.
Telecommunications consultant Mark Goldberg put Telus’ move in a different context: At a time when the three big wireless companies are battling new entrants such as Wind Mobile, Public Mobile and Mobilicity for subscribers at the low end of the market, Telus is also going after those willing to pay the most for the fastest speeds.
“It’s an indicator that increasing [market] share doesn’t always mean dropping your prices, that investment may allow you to increase your average revenue per user,” he said.
Eros Spadotto, Telus’ executive vice-president of technology strategy, said achieving 42 Mbps is a “fairly simple” upgrade to the Huawei or Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) radio processors on the company’s antennas. At the moment each radio head on the HSPA+ network uses either a 800 or 1900 Mhz channel, each capable of up to 21 Mpbs throughput. A second 1900 Mhz channel will be added and the pair bonded through standards-based software to double the speed.
Some antenna locations will also need a processor board in their base stations.
Telus will start upgrading its Huawei radios first because it had the software available before NSN’s, Spadotto said.
“We’re starting now because we know data sticks [for laptops] will be available in Q1 next year,” he added, so much of the carrier’s Western Canadian network will be ready by then. Late this year it will start extending the capability to Telus’ infrastructure in Eastern Canada.
Spadotto acknowledged the HSPA+ network is young enough that most of Telus’ 6.6 million subscribers are on its older iDEN and CDMA/EVDO wireless networks. But, he said, for those needing the fastest speeds the upgrade to 42 Mbps will be useful.
From Telus’ point of view, he added, not only is a faster network also more efficient, doubling the number of channels adds capacity.
How fast will Telus push the new network? He can foresee going to 84 Mbps either by bonding with a third or fourth channel, or taking advantage of its network’s MIMO
(multiple input-multiple output) capability – or by combining both techniques to get even greater speeds.
As for LTE, he maintains there won’t be a good ecosystem of handsets, tablets or USB modems until 2013. In the meantime, Spadotto said, HSPA+ can be extended.