A few weeks back a number of Bell bigwigs including Senior
Vice-President Jim Jaques visited Whitehorse to announce a significant
upgrade to the North’s cell network. At long last, we’ve joined the
modern age with internet access on our cell phones.
But don’t let the hype fool you. We’re still laggards on the world stage.
That said, I won’t snub the upgrade. I am grateful that Whitehorse has
at very long last managed to rank high enough on Bell’s corporate
economic strategy to receive some more technological hand-me-downs from
our southern urban big brothers and sisters.
It’s sort of like we just landed a pair of decade-old Air Jordans and can give Grandpa his rubber boots back.
In marketing terms, the Bell upgrade gives us something called “1X”.
You could think of this technology in terms of those noisy modems we all used to have hanging off the backs of our computers. The 1X internet experience is not unlike the web, circa-1996: slow and expensive, but somehow worth it.
At a press conference, Mr. Jaques referred to the North’s new 1X service as “3G”, or “third generation”. Strictly speaking, this is not accurate. Because of its legacy technical underpinnings, 1X is more commonly considered a 2.75-generation grade of service that serves as a respectable first step towards true mobile internet access.
Major Canadian centres are already moving on to a higher-grade Bell service called “1X-EVDO” which is a true 3G mobile platform. But even Toronto and Montreal lag behind mobile meccas like Tokyo and London.
Long ago Bell made a strategic decision to adopt a CDMA cell platform for its network, and that hinders the company’s access to the best contemporary mobile technologies. But Bell isn’t alone in its suffering; most major North American carriers went in the same direction.
CDMA is based on the concept of “spread-spectrum” radio communications that Nikola Tesla first patented a use for in 1900. The seeds for modern-day CDMA are believed to have been sown in World War II when actress Hedy Lamarr worked with the US government to devise a way to “hide” communications among numerous radio frequencies by using a piano roll.
With a romantic history like that, why wouldn’t North America choose CDMA as its continental cell technology? Never mind the fact that the rest of the world had selected a cheaper, more effective platform called GSM – we’re talking Hedy Lamarr here, people!
These days, for every one person that uses CDMA in North American, there are 7 using GSM scattered around the globe. Back in the days of the video format wars, I think even Beta stood up against VHS better than that.
But we’re not talking consumer-grade tape decks here. Multi-million-dollar cell networks can’t be bought at a Boxing Day sale. So to suggest Bell toss out years of infrastructure investments may be considered a tad foolhardy. But I’ll do it anyway.
Just consider this: one of GSM’s key benefits is the opportunity it provides telephone owners to move freely among global networks. Whereas a CDMA cell phone is permanently locked into one provider’s network, GSM phones can be carried from network to network and still work by simply swapping out a “SIM” card.
One could literally traipse the globe with a GSM phone, whereas a CDMA unit would go deaf at the Canadian border.
Never mind the fact, too, that even as CDMA plays catch-up to 3G-grade services, GSM-based countries like Japan are already moving ahead into 4G territory.
And then there’s perhaps GSM’s biggest market advantage of all: cutting-edge kit. As GSM cell technologies leap forward, we CDMA-stymied North Americans will always stand on the sidelines jealously watching our foreign compatriots tuck into ever-more cool gadgetry.
Clearly, this is where CDMA really stumbles.
When the Bell folks were up here, they were wont to describe their meagre selection of handsets as “sexy”. But CDMA phones are about as sexy as office slacks when compared to the mini skirt offerings of GSM.
Sony-Ericsson, for example, widely regarded as the world’s leading handset designer, doesn’t even bother to port any of its devices to the small CDMA market. And the Canadian company Blackberry, in what would seem an act of irony, has only released its hot new Pearl as a GSM unit, available primarily in Europe.
(It is available in Canada, however, exclusively for use on Rogers Communication’s southern GSM-based network.)
It’s worth noting at this point that a company called Ice Wireless purports to offer GSM cell services in Whitehorse. However, if the state of their web site is any indication of the quality of their services I’d steer clear. I’ve never heard anything positive about Ice’s service from any of their former customers (they’re always former). And Ice representatives have failed to return my calls, perhaps further testament to their service’s quality.
But heck, CDMA and GSM, it’s apples and oranges from a Whitehorse perspective.
I mentioned before, despite its technical underpinnings I’m quite grateful for Bell’s delivery of 1X services to Whitehorse. After all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned living in the North, when it comes to technology, beggars can’t be choosers.
First published in the Yukon News on Friday, November 3, 2006.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Canada License.