This week, I went through one of my brief periods of local radio fame, talking on the CBC morning show about the pending arrival of high speed cellular service in Whitehorse.
Given the brief amount of airtime available, I purposely kept my comments brief, only mentioning in passing some things that I can see as being items of interest and areas of worry as this new service rolls out.
I will take the opportunity of the larger space available to me here to expound on those things in a bit more detail.
First of all, the basic questions being floated on the CBC show were twofold: How soon are we likely to see high speed, 3G cellphone service in Whitehorse, and will we have the communications infrastructure to support it?
On the subject of when the service might be arriving, both the Bell representative on the line from Ontario and my own local informational source were disappointingly, though understandably, vague.
The Bell spokesman made a big point that the new service would be available to 92 per cent of all Canadians by early this month; he would not, however, commit to saying that Whitehorsers would for sure be included at that time in that percentage.
Word from the local telco is in effect much the same: High speed wireless is coming, and with it the ability to take full advantage of 3G (third generation) smart phones, but no one is in a position to say just when that is going to happen.
For frustrated iPhonophiles like me, that vagary may be a little distressing.
It means that many of us are going to have to keep our cellphone service purchases on hold for longer than we would like.
Like a lot of people these days, I have been planning to move away from my land-line telephone entirely, switching my high speed internet service over to my television cable connection, and migrating from my copper-line phone that nobody ever calls me on to a more fully featured and usable smart phone service – like that available on the iPhone.
It makes little sense for me to invest in a CMDA-based cellphone (the kind available right now), when I will thereafter have to very quickly ditch it for my technology of choice.
To be fair, though, it is certainly better that the service, when it does arrive, comes in as a vetted, stable communication platform, not a rush and botch job.
On the second subject – whether Whitehorse has the technical infrastructure it needs to support this kind of service – my source in the telco sector was comfortingly sanguine.
With a fully functional fibre optic line connecting us to the internet backbone, and with our relatively small population base, Whitehorse is likely to have lots of bandwidth to burn on high speed cellular for quite some time to come.
Neither do users of the older CDMA-based cellphones have any short or medium-term worries: The local installed base of CDMA service customers is big enough that it will of necessity be supported in parallel with the new W-CDMA service with HSPA+.
(If you don’t understand any of those acronyms mean, don’t worry: Almost nobody does. Just remember that CMDA is the older cellphone technology and W-CMDA is the newer, faster one; the HSPA+ stuff essentially just makes the W-CDMA even faster, sort of.)
But herein lies a potential problem – not immediately, but perhaps down the road.
All this flashy new high speed cell technology is only going to be available in Whitehorse.
The cellular infrastructure that the Yukon government invested in with Horizon Wireless about three years ago is all CDMA, and not likely to be part of that 92 percentile the Bell spokesman was so buffo about serving.
In the short or perhaps even medium term (say two to three years), this is probably not such a big problem: Horizon Wireless will continue providing service to the communities, and there has even been some new equipment added recently, to boost the quality of service in some areas.
Furthermore, I, for one, have not heard a whole lot of complaints from rural Yukoners about not having 3G, high speed cell service; on the whole, they seem pretty content with what they have (a rare thing, in the Yukon).
In the coming years, though, as more and more services migrate to the cellular wireless arena, a whole new digital divide problem could start to evolve in the territory, with rural Yukoners at a discernable disadvantage relative to Whitehorsers.
This is going to call for yet more technically and financially inventive thinking on the part of the Yukon government – a government which has historically been one of the most forward-thinking in the country, by the way, when it comes to enabling digital communication.
It will have to be equally forward-thinking as the internet moves from copper lines and television cables into the radio spectrum.
Throwing yet more heaps of money at the problem right away is clearly neither fiscally responsible nor technologically sensible.
Investment will have to happen sooner or later; but it makes sense to give the industry time to shake down its product lines and procedures before placing more public-money investment in upgrading the rural network.
So, for the moment, I have to be patient in the short run, as I salivate over the specs on the 32 GB version of the iPhone 3GS; and my rural fellow Yukoners will doubtless have to be patient significantly longer.
Rick Steele is a technology
junkie who lives in Whitehorse.