Canadian carriers wonder: 3G or not 3G?

Canadian wireless carriers say the arrival of 3G services south of the border isn’t enough to convince them to make similar investments in high-speed data services here.

Media reports in the United States say AT&T Wireless Services Inc. will launch its third-generation (or 3G) services

to transmit e-mail, pictures and video over high speed as early as next week. The rollout is expected to begin in Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix and Detroit and will include two phone models from Nokia and Motorola, as well as a data card.

Vendors have been promising 3G for years but the concept has been marred by conflicting definitions. AT&T is getting to 3G by adopting Universal Mobile Telecommunication System (UMTS), a standard generally based on Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (W-CDMA).

Rogers Wireless in Toronto, which operates a general packet radio service (GPRS) network, will announce this week the completion of an Enhanced Data rates for GPRS Evolution (EDGE) rollout and the availability of a Sony Ericsson GC82 EDGE PC card. Rogers began a trial of EDGE late last year through a software upgrade on its network in Vancouver. AT&T Wireless already offers EDGE to its customers.

David Neale, Roger’s vice-president of new product development, said the company was already confident in the technology but wanted to take the time to gauge the user experience.

“”What they were seeing was genuinely three times faster than what they were seeing with GPRS,”” he said. “”That meant people were seeing 90 Kbps quite regularly.””

That means IT managers could finally have enough throughput to make desktop applications like Citrix viable, Neale said.

The alternative to EDGE, EV-DO, cranks up the data rate from current U.S. cellular networks (CDMA2000 1xRTT) to a theoretical 2 Mbps and has already been rolled out by Verizon and Sprint in the U.S. In Canada, 1X carriers include Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility, who have so far made no announcements about moving to EV-DO.

“”Most carriers are only getting a couple of dollars of their average revenue per user out of data services,”” said Bell Mobility president Michael Neuman, adding that those services typically include low-bandwidth applications like e-mail and short text messaging. “”To put out an even higher-speed network at this point before the adoption rates are sufficient to suggest that very high-bandwidth services are required on a mobile basis would really be putting the cart before the horse.””

Telus Mobility spokesperson Julia Quinton said there was no reason to change the status quo.

“”We’re more than satisfied with what we offer through our 1X network,”” she said. “”Obviously it’s fast, at 140 Kbps and of course it’s national . . .we’re content on that front.””

Last year Allen Nogee, an analyst with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research firm In-Stat MDR, published a report that indicated little demand for 3G services. He said he’s seen little since then to change his mind.

“”Even if there is somewhat of a demand — and Verizon is exploiting that with EV-DO — the AT&T move is a little bit different because it requires all new handsets,”” he said. “”They’re only planning coverage in four cities. That would be kind of liming for the first adventurous people that want to shell out their money to get these phones.””

EDGE, like UMTS, qualifies as 3G because it fits in with the International Telecommunications Union’s definition of services, Neale said.

“”Most of the time, what you’ve got to look at is, what is the benefit to the customer, what’s the cost to provide the service,”” he said. “”When you look at the capital cost of deploying EDGE on our existing investment, it was very small for quite a significant improvement.””

Neuman said Bell Mobility does have its eye on “”medium-speed”” data applications like e-mail with heavy attachments and picture messaging, which has become popular. He also pointed to customers like Hamilton Police, which is using ruggedized laptops with Sierra wireless cards that have been installed in every car, as signs that 3G will eventually be ready for prime time.

“”Now that they’ve stepped up to the challenge of determining what their wireless strategy needs to be for competitive or budget reasons, it won’t be much of a segue for them to go to even higher-bandwidth applications,”” he said.

Nogee said the transition has been difficult for all cellular carriers.

“”On one hand, they certainly don’t want to be left behind,”” he said. “”On the other hand, if they spend all their money on this technology that doesn’t become very popular, they’ve wasted a lot of their resources.””

AT&T Wireless’s move may only be a contractual concession to Japan’s NTT DoCoMo, Nogee added, which has a 16 per cent stake in the firm.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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