Jim Jacques came to Whitehorse to announce Bell Mobility’s long-awaited mobile data network, but heard a chorus of concerns about cellphones instead.
Jacques, senior vice-president of Bell Canada, officially launched the $7.5-million “1X” upgrade of the Whitehorse cell infrastructure on Tuesday — a “commercial grade” improvement that allows cellphones and other gadgets, such as Blackberries, to surf the internet, check e-mail, send photos and download ring tones and music.
But sapping juice from Jacques’ happy data-stream were the ongoing problems with voice calls over the Whitehorse cell network shared by Bell, NMI Mobility and Latitude Wireless customers.
“We’ve been working on this for many months, so when we go public that a network is commercial grade, it is bulletproof,” said Jacques of the 1X upgrade.
“We never launch anything half-cooked.”
And the 1X advancement — targeted at small- and medium-business customers who want to remain connected to the office while on the road — brings with it increased abilities to handle voice traffic, said Jacques.
“The technology specifically is about expanding capacity and, secondly, speed — speed being fundamental to the data applications,” he said. “There’s no question this is a technological step forward.”
In addition to the 1X improvements, cell towers downtown and on Haekel Hill will also see a doubling of capacity to handle more voice traffic, said Chris McNutt, spokesperson for NMI Mobility, a company owned by Bell.
“The target is to bring the network up to Bell Canada specifications,” said McNutt.
“There has been some challenges with capacity issues on the Whitehorse network and congestion at certain times of day, and that is acknowledged.”
Tech weenies rejoice in acronyms while technophobes run for the hills — and wireless technology these days is awash in funky number-letter combinations.
In simple terms, 1X is all about data.
Data, in the wireless world, means everything a person can do with a wireless gadget other than talk, like send an e-mail or download an .mp3 of Gnarls Barkley while sending an instant message to a friend.
Such capabilities have been online through Bell since 2002, when the 1X service rolled out in Toronto, said Nadia Moretti, senior associate director of Bell Mobility.
The service has slowly expanded across Canada, and a surfeit of politicians in Ottawa and businesspeople in Vancouver have been glued to Blackberries ever since.
Bell wants the same thing to happen in Whitehorse, and is targeting businesspeople to lead the change, said Jacques.
“We think the very obvious opportunity here, with the 1X network, is for small and medium business,” he said.
“There’s a lot of latent demand, locally. Customers have been greatly anticipating this upgrade and increasing ability to use wireless services to benefit their lives.”
Internet entertainment on cellphones is a nice novelty for casual users, “but the real raw benefit and purpose to these devices will be seen in the small and medium business segments,” said Jacques.
Several different versions of the Blackberry, along with Palm Treos and cellphones with data capabilities, are being offered at Whitehorse Bell stores to coincide with the 1X upgrade.
“This now makes Whitehorse a market that is able to compete fully and equally with other urban centres across Canada,” said Jacques.
“You can be as productive as you are sitting at your desk from basically anywhere. This is an amazing empowerment of the mobile workforce.”
Of course, that hyperbolic empowerment can happen in Whitehorse and only Whitehorse.
The 1X improvement is within the existing “footprint” of the cell network in Whitehorse, said McNutt.
“There won’t be any expansion of the current footprint of the cellular coverage, but the footprint will have better coverage,” he said.
Data capability is already online in several Yukon communities, but is not offered through the Bell network.
People who own cellphones should not worry their old phone will not work on the new system and will likely be able to use the additional features, said Jacques.
Whitehorse is one of the last places in Canada to upgrade to 1X, or in wireless weenie terms, 3G, for “third generation.”
“For years, the phones have been 1X enabled, it’s just the network that hasn’t been,” he said.
The Bell cell network was created in Whitehorse with one tower in 1998.
At the time it was analogue — or a 1G “first generation” network.
In 2002 the network went to 2G by going digital for voice communication in Whitehorse with three cell towers.
A fourth “micro” tower was added at the Canada Games Centre in May, said McNutt.
Tuesday’s announcement means Bell’s network in Whitehorse is now 3G.
Many of the 3G devices can also function as modems for laptop computers.
Wireless cards for laptops will be sold at stores to access the internet through the 1X network, said Moretti.
But though 3G is novel for Whitehorse, it’s already being superceded by 4G, a technology that allows “streaming,” or live data transfers.
Streaming means video clips can be accessed, for a price, by cellphone users, and has led to an explosion in cutting edge, small-scale movie production in Toronto.
The technology has also allowed customers to watch television programs on their cellphones while riding the bus home from work.
Whitehorse didn’t get 4G.
“Who knows what the future may bring,” said Jacques, pressed to explain why the upgrade didn’t go further.
“You need to be 1X first. It’s the first step.”
Technology upgrades are never an end state but always a journey of enhancement, said Jacques.
And despite a small population and tiny footprint where the data service will work, Jacques is quite certain Blackberry culture — referred to as “Crackberries” by anyone who knows a person addicted to them — will take root in Whitehorse.
“I’m certainly confident Whitehorse residents will embrace it very, very quickly,” he said.
“We obviously wouldn’t invest unless we felt there was a significant opportunity.”