Wednesday 23 December 2009

Comments on a Telcom Dispatch Article

I submitted the following rebuttal to a  Fox Group Media article which implied that HSPA cellular service would solve numerous problems in rural areas.


Ms. Fox:

I wish to take issue with some of the comments in the Telcom Dispatch Issue 53, December 19, 2009 article entitled “Converging Environments in the Wireless Worlds.” I find some of the points misleading.


I am a resident of rural Canada, specifically the Algoma Distinct of northern Ontario, that only has spotty 1X CDMA service and very little likelihood of getting anything else in the near future In spite of owning spectrum for nearly two decades, none of the national vendors provide cellular service in the area except along the Hwy 17 corridor between Sault Ste. Marie (SSM) and Sudbury. If you are travelling along the Trans-Canada forget about using your HSPA or GSM phone after leaving SSM until you travel the 700 km plus to Thunder Bay (TB). Depending on the route taken, you may receive intermittent service between TB and the Manitoba border.


TBayTel, with assistance from the provincial government (Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation) and the federal government (FedNor), has done a fantastic job in providing the service we have and their Regional in Fill (RIF) project targeted for completion in 2010 will enhance their CDMA service along the Trans-Canada highway corridor. However, numerous coverage gaps will exist especially on the alternate major highways. As of this writing, TBayTel has not made public any plans to install a HSPA/GSM overlay on their network.


While past articles in the Telcom Dispatch have been critical of government subsidies for rural areas, I think most commentators have ignored the fact that the cellular services provided benefit all Canadians that use the road networks across the area. As the article rightly notes, robust Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is an essential part of Economic Development (ED). As a fringe player in the ED arena, the first questions I am usually asked by potential clients concern the availability of cellular and broadband (high speed Internet) service. If an area does not have at one of them, the client quickly moves on.


Two areas that should be of concern to all but seldom get mentioned are safety and the environment. The north is an area of great distances. In the winter, the roads can be very dangerous. There are numerous examples of instances where cellular coverage has saved lives. Also, but using ICT, the need for travel and the associated pollution and carbon emissions can be reduced.


One of the myths being perpetuated is that HSPA will provide broadband (high speed Internet) to rural and remote areas. On the technical side, this might be true - if the service was available. The same reasons that make it uneconomical to roll-out IP enabled cable services and telco based ADSL broadband (high speed Internet) also apply to the roll-out of cellular services. This is one of the reasons cellular service is only available along major highways and in urban population centres. In a number of cases, where HSPA service is available, terrestrial based broadband (high speed Internet) systems are also available so there is not a lot of net gain.


However, the biggest draw back to the use of HSPA as a broadband (high speed Internet) alternative is the cost. People in the area who have used the HSPA or EV-DO option have often been shocked when they receive the first bill.  The current data plan caps in the 5 GB range are not realistic for a business operator or even a family with active teenagers. When the user reaches the cap, the cost per kilobit rises dramatically. The new entrant also seems to think 5 GB is just fine.


An alternate finding some acceptance in the area is point-to-multipoint (P-MP) wireless systems. Users appear willing to trade throughput for reasonable costs. Unfortunately, the many technical restrictions of P-MP may make it a short term stop gap. Many of the systems available will not exceed a download of 4 Mbps and most are restricted to 1.5 Mbps; unfortunately, this is the minimum service requirements under the Broadband Canada program.


In closing, I want to mention satellite “broadband” service. While it is available to all who can afford the initial outlay, it is not really a substitute. I speak from experience as a long time user. While it is better than dial-up, any application requiring a low latency cannot operate satisfactorily over the existing public satellite services. I have not met a user yet that is satisfied with satellite service, myself included.


P.S. I have attached a map I often use when trying to explain the distances involved in the north. It is often very humorous to watch the reaction. It shows an outline of the Algoma District overlaid on southern Ontario; both are the same scale.


map_combined_S&N (2)

Friday 18 December 2009

New Cellular Entrants


There has been a lot of hype recently about the entry into the marketplace of new cellular telephone companies. Pundits and others on the blogosphere touted their anticipated arrival  as a potentially great day for the Canadian consumer as it would teach the big three - Bell, Rogers and Telus - a lesson in humility.

Globealive, operating as Wind Mobile, was the first new entrant off the mark. After a careful perusal of their website and as a rural northern Ontario resident, I was not impressed.

If you live in a Wind Home Zone and expect to use you cell phone to talk within that zone or another Wind Home Zone, it is probably a very good alternative to the existing carriers. At the time of writing, only the Toronto and Calgary Home Zones were operational with a promise of more zones in Ottawa, Vancouver, Edmonton in 2010. More cities will follow in the out years.

Anything outside a Home Zone is an Away Zone. Since Wind Mobile uses the same GSM/HSPA technology as Rogers and has a roaming agreement with them, the Away Zone coverage mimics the Rogers coverage map. This means that there is no coverage along the Trans-Canada Highway from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay  or Thunder Bay to the Manitoba border. The same applies to most of the length of Highway 101 from Wawa to Timmins. There are small pockets of third tier GSM availability across the north if Wind Mobile has executed roaming agreements with them. 

Wind Mobile does have consumer friendly features. The most noticeable is that it does not require a customer to sign a 1-3 year contract. One is free to join or leave the network as will and without a penalty.  The trade off for this is that Wind Mobile does not subsidize the initial cost of the phone. Wind Mobile's initial offering consists of four options ranging in price from a high of $450.00 for a BlackBerry to a low of $130.00 for a Huawei U7519. The consumer must pay this up front. It also offers a data stick for $150.00. It is unclear if the hardware is "locked".

Wind Mobile does not charge the most hated of add-on fees - the network access fee or a clone of it. It offers three fixed rate plans which are extremely reasonable if a few principles are adhered to. First and most importantly, never leave the Wind Mobile home network. Once the you are outside a Wind Home Zone or not calling another Wind Mobile subscriber, roaming charges, - or AWAY Minute in Wind Mobile speak - are $.25 per minute for voice. There are a number other charges for different off-net scenarios. I suspect there will be some surprise when the early adopters get their first bill.

If one lives and works in a Wind Mobile Home Zone, it is probably a very good product. Unfortunately, there is little direct advantage for anywhere in the District except East Algoma where for a price Wind Mobile could roam on the Rogers network. In directly, the new entrant might put enough pressure on the incumbents to meet or beat the competition.