Next-Generation wireless

It’s a reality for some, but for others, the long wait for third-generation mobile technology continues. Not everyone is impatient. One reason these improvements to the mobile phone network, allowing it to carry data at broadband speeds, have taken longer than originally expected is that market demand has been underwhelming.

Still, we’re getting there gradually and it seems there are at least some uses for the technology.

For many Canadians today, true 3G wireless is still in the future, though something close to it, often referred to as 2.5G, is fairly widespread.

EV-DO – full name 1X Evolution-Data Optimized – offers data speeds up to 3.1 megabits per second (Mbps). Bell Mobility and Telus Corp. each offer it in a couple of dozen Canadian urban areas and popular vacation destinations – both carriers cover the largest cities – Telus covers more smaller centres in the west but has no coverage in Atlantic Canada, while Bell covers some East-Coast cities.

Bell’s version runs at speeds up to 2.4 Mbps on the downlink today, with plans to upgrade fairly soon to 3.1 Mbps, according to Philippe Jette, vice-president of data solutions at Bell Mobility. Uplink speeds are slower. Telus (which did not respond to requests to comment for this article) also runs the 2.4-Mbps version. Both admit on their Web sites that 2.4 Mbps is a peak speed and the average is 400 to 700 kilobits per second. EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution), which is somewhat slower with a theoretical top speed of 384 Kbps and real-world speeds of about half that, is widely available from Rogers Wireless.

Some people would consider EV-DO a true third-generation wireless technology and some wouldn’t, says Brian Sharwood, a telecommunications industry analyst at research firm SeaBoard Group Inc. in Toronto. EDGE is generally considered a 2.5G technology, as is the 1XRTT offering available from Bell, Telus and other incumbent telephone companies in most of Canada. In early November Rogers announced the availability of High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) in southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe from Oshawa through Toronto to Niagara Falls. Current versions of HSDPA offer data transmission at speeds up to 3.6 Mbps, with future evolution promising speeds up to 7.2 Mbps.

Rogers plans to roll out HSDPA to other Canadian centres during 2007, a company spokeswoman said.

According to industry research firm Strategy Analytics, Inc., of Boston, there will be 167 million users of EV-DO and W-CDMA (an intermediate step between EDGE and HSDPA) worldwide by the end of this year, and more than one billion by 2010. Still, even when that magical one-billion-user point is reached, Strategy Analytics projects that 3G users will account for only about a third of a total worldwide mobile telephony market of three billion users.

Most businesses use wireless to exchange data

High speed cellular data services are available mostly in urban areas today. Is that enough? Carrie MacGillivray, an analyst at the Ottawa office of Boston-based telecommunications research firm Yankee Group, says it depends on the customer and the application. Transportation companies, for instance, need broad coverage to use these services for fleet tracking and communication with their vehicles. Resource companies might be looking for access in remote areas. But for many businesses, if it works within the city limits, that’s fine.

Sharwood says the bigger question is how much demand there is for high-speed cellular data services anyway. Mobile data is widely used, he says, but the fact is that most business people use it for e-mail and exchanging small amounts of data with corporate systems.

EV-DO suited for high-quality video

Jette divides mobile data applications into four main categories: health care, public service including police and public safety, transportation and a broadly defined category of financial services that includes areas such as real estate and insurance. Many of the applications in these areas will work quite comfortably over networks with speeds lower than true 3G, he says.

Even streaming video will work over 1X unless the quality requirements are high, he says. Where EV-DO comes in handy is for high-quality video and for synchronizing large amounts of data between mobile devices and central systems – an example is mobile transactions in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems like SAP, which have considerable overhead.

Belron Canada Inc., an auto glass repair company, is running a trial of Bell Mobility’s 1X network in Montreal. The 1X technology lets about a dozen service people accept work orders and directions online, travel to a customer’s home, notify the office when they arrive, start the job, finish the job and leave. They can also take payments from customers and add items to invoices on the spot. The system pleases customers and simplifies Belron’s internal operations, says Stephane Turbide, principal director of IT and technology. But does he see a need for the greater bandwidth of EV-DO? No. The slower 1X “does provide us with what we’re looking for,” Turbide says.

“There are a lot of business applications, but most of them don’t use massive amounts of data,” Sharwood says. “There’s not a lot that you need a super high-speed connection for that you might be willing to pay for at the rates that they’re charging.” And that is becoming more true as Wi-Fi hotspots proliferate. The road warrior who needs to download a large file can usually find a Wi-Fi connection that will do it faster than HSDPA or EV-DO.

“There’s a future for some kind of high-speed data,” says Sharwood. “The question is what’s the application that they’re going to use it for?”

MacGillivray says more advanced sales force automation and access to corporate databases and ERP systems might be part of the answer. The biggest potential bandwidth hog is video, and MacGillivray suggests there are some niche applications, such as supervisors at construction sites sending images or video back to corporate headquarters to aid in quick decision-making, or ambulances relaying video of a patient in need of urgent attention to a doctor to help in diagnosis.

Mansell Nelson, vice-president of business development for Rogers Business Solutions, says security video is an emerging application for mobile networks. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, he says, “there is a desire to be putting cameras up in places where traditionally it’s been pretty hard to get a cable modem or DSL in there.”

Nelson also says that while applications designed for mobile use do quite nicely over EDGE’s limited bandwidth, standard applications running on laptop computers are often not optimized to make the best use of bandwidth and will benefit from the higher speed of HSDPA.

businesses should ensure traffic is encrypted

Of course there is also the consumer video market, and carriers and phone manufacturers alike are pushing the idea of television on the cellphone. But Sharwood is skeptical. “Consumers are not that excited about paying a lot of money for it,” he says. “We got it for free for many years by sticking up rabbit ears.”

Data transmission over the cellular networks themselves is quite secure, Sharwood says, because the networks are proprietary and the carriers have security in place. Nonetheless, he advises, businesses need to pay attention to security. They should make sure their traffic will be encrypted from end to end.

“They need to think from their firewall out to the device,” Nelson says.

Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion Inc. provides corporate customers with a server that encrypts data traffic as it leaves the corporate network, transmits it securely to another server at RIM headquarters that relays it in encrypted form to the handheld device, Sharwood explains. With other services, data may travel over the Internet before going out over the wireless network. Rogers can provide customers a dedicated circuit or virtual private network (VPN) link from their servers to the edge of its network, Nelson says. Sharwood advises asking lots of questions about the path the data follows and where it might be vulnerable. “Be pro-active, not reactive,” he warns.

That’s what Belron Canada is doing. Turbide says he isn’t trusting to the security of the 1X network, which he views as comparable to sending his data over the public Internet. Belron has built its own application-layer security provisions to ensure its data is safe, he says.

Jette says 1X and EV-DO are both highly secure at the physical layer, but customers can layer on additional security measures such as VPNs, IP pooling, authentication and encryption at the application layer as demanded by their applications or their corporate security policies.

Before worrying about the security issues or the availability of 3G wireless networks, though, the first question to ask is whether you have an application that needs the speed those networks deliver. Even today, not everyone does.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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