TORONTO — John Sheridan, president of Bell Canada, opened Communications 2001 with a familiar keynote theme: the world is a nastier place than it was a couple of months ago, but buck up.

“Even with so much to look forward to, it’s difficult not to look back to the recent past,” he said, referring to the Sept. 11 attacks. Even so, he added, “We’ve got to be careful to resist pessimism. Our challenge lies in renewing our optimism.”

Sheridan, who is head of Bell’s wireline division, focused most of his remarks on the opportunities in wireless.

His address more or less mirrored recent speeches by other executives in the various BCE divisions: The telecommunications industry is one of the rare bright lights on a dismal economic horizon, mostly due to the huge growth in wireless. The Boston Consulting Group, he said, predicts the total telecommunications market in Canada will more than double in the next three years.

Bell Canada, which recently released third-quarter results, experienced an 18 per cent growth in high-speed Internet (DSL) subscribers over the previous quarter to 625,000; a data revenue increase of 17 per cent to $881 million; and a 25 per cent increase to 3.2 million in cellular and PCS subscribers. “So the picture is clear to me,” he said. “We do have powerful growth engines.”

Sheridan also pointed to the growing importance of the convergence of voice, data and video in the future of telecommunications.

The BCE empire, which includes CTV and the Globe and Mail, announced at the end of October it is in the final stages of development of a convergence product it is developing with Toronto-based ExtendMedia, a production company that develops interactive content for the Internet, television and wireless convergence market.

Called ComboBox, the product is intended to enable ComboBox customers to explore Sympatico-Lycos’ optimized portals, send and receive e-mail, use instant messaging, play games, watch and record television, create personalized programming, surf the Web and receive an electronic program guide through the use of their television, remote control and wireless keyboard.

Despite the fact that convergence is becoming a reality, there are still skeptics out there, said Sheridan.

“You do get the questions about what convergence really means and when is it going to happen,” he said. “Something that’s basic to us that some of the cynics still question is the marriage of wireless and the Internet.”

Those cynics, he said, want to know if people really need to play games on their wireless devices and whether the industry can really afford 3G.

“It really is way too easy to be a skeptic,” he said. “You don’t need to believe in anything or do anything. We are committed and we do things and while basic convergence may be slowing, it remains a totally unstoppable force from any side of the equation.”

But to be a successful player in a converged world telco players will have to collaborate strategically with their competitors, he said, giving the example of the roaming agreements Bell Mobility has established with Telus in various parts of Canada.

And don’t forget the customers, he added.

“We’ve also got to remember not to forget the obvious. We have to do our part and pay attention to the needs of customers. That’s going to mean continuing to invest heavily in infrastructure, cultivate new greenfield opportunities and develop applications.”

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