Bell Canada puts 3G wireless in play

TORONTO — Bell Canada launched its $100-million third-generation wireless network five months ahead of schedule on Monday, even as other carriers are seeing limited success with the same technology, according to industry watchers.

Based on evolution data-optimized (EVDO) equipment from Nortel Networks, Bell Mobility executives said the network will be available in the Greater Toronto Area and Montreal immediately, to be followed with a nationwide rollout early next year. It will allow download rates of 2.4 Mbps, with average speeds of 400 to 700 Kbps. Bell announced its plans for an EVDO network late last year, conducting pilots in Toronto.

To help stimulate the market, Bell also announced three EVDO-compatible hardware devices Monday. These include the Kyocera Passport, the BlackBerry 7130e, and the Samsung a920, which offer a variety of consumer applications such as streaming video and Web surfing. Bell Mobility senior vice-president of business marketing and sales Jim Jaques said the carrier would be offering three more phones by February. The Peel Regional Police signed up on Friday to be Bell’s first EVDO customer, Jaques added, though spokespeople for the force would not comment at press time.

Adel Bazerghi, Bell’s vice-president of wireless technology, said the network will be backwards compatible with its 1XRTT network, allowing data session handoffs through standard mobile network protocols. The carrier sees remote access to corporate data and applications such as sales force automation, customer relationship management, e-mail with heavy attachments and schematic diagrams as the most likely attractions for enterprise users.

“CDMA is really the superior system. Even our competitors know it,” Bazerghi said. “While others grapple and make the necessary investments in capable systems, we are ready and moving ahead.”

While Bazerghi said Bell’s EVDO network should keep it ahead of competitors such as Rogers Communications and Telus for several years, research analysts who follow the wireless infrastructure market say carriers who have adopted it in the United States haven’t seen a return on their investment.

Lisa Pierce, vice-president of Forrester’s Telecom and Network Research Group, said there are several indicators that suggest Verizon, for example, is “disappointed” with EVDO, such as the sluggish performance of its five dollar a month service to transmit photos.

“It’s a software overlay. It can be significant from financial standpoint, but only as EDGE is to GPRS,” she said, referring to a competing third-generation (3G) standard that has been embraced by Rogers in Canada.

Shiv Bakhshi, director of Framingham, Mass.-based IDC’s Wireless & Mobile Network Infrastructure unit, said Verizon has seen a significant boost in the average revenue per user (ARPU) that comes from data services. “But by data, it’s very difficult to know what these vendors mean,” he said.

Allen Nogee, principle analyst for the Wireless Component Technology Service at Instat-MDR, said EVDO services may end up competing with Wi-Fi, which is already available in most major airports and many public spaces. Earlier this year, in fact, Verizon decommissioned the hundreds of free Wi-Fi hotspots it turned up in New York City two years ago in a move analysts said was designed to emphasize its EVDO service. Bell has also helped set up hotspots in Toronto and elsewhere.

“It has been light,” Nogee said of EVDO’s market growth. “A lot of business people have a broadband connection at work and at home. The demand for the area in between just isn’t all that great yet.”

Pierce said there were major opportunities to transform businesses and governments through EVDO, but doing so could require some organizational changes.

“It does take quite a while for non-road users and for the company to get its act together to really be able to use these services,” she said. “You need to set up the policies, determine what the applications are and which are the most important. You have to go through the process of selecting vendors and providers and working to maximize the performance of the handset for whatever the applications are that people decide to use.” 

Bazerghi said Bell was confident EVDO is a good long-term strategy.

“A lot of the developers, including many we all know, are putting in hooks for wireless in their applications,” he said. “The only thing that’s been missing was the performance on the devices as well as the network.”

Bell executives said the company will extend its EVDO coverage for Bell Mobility customers into the U.S.

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