Carriers duel for wireless bragging rights

Cellphone users are routinely hit with the buzz words “fastest” and “most reliable” when it comes to wireless networks.

MONTREAL — Cellphone users are routinely hit with the buzz words “fastest” and “most reliable” when it comes to wireless networks.

So who has Canada’s fastest wireless service? Is it Rogers (TSX:RCI.B), Bell (TSX:BCE) or Telus (TSX:T)?

Technology watchers say consumers will have a hard time telling the difference, despite the claims each network makes.

“Broadly speaking in a dense urban area — downtown Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary — you are going to tend to get about the same speed on each network,” said technology analyst Duncan Stewart.

If all conditions are perfect — there is no rain, no one else is on the network and you have the latest device — you will get top speed, said Stewart, director of research and analysis at DSAM Consulting.

“But in the real world, that’s not the way it works,” Stewart said from Toronto.

Nevertheless, Telus is suing Rogers in an attempt to force its competitor to abandon long-standing claims to having Canada’s fastest and most reliable network.

Telus argues that Rogers can’t support that claim, as of the launch of new advanced wireless networks this month by it and Bell.

Rogers has said it stands behind its claims, adding that its internal and third-party testing since 2007 has “consistently demonstrated” it has the most reliable network.

But PC Magazine’s Sascha Segan said these kinds of claims are almost impossible to prove and knocked the description “most reliable.”

“It’s a weasel word,” said Segan. “You can define that any way you want. It could mean it drops fewer calls.

“It could mean it’s available in the most rural areas. Who knows?”

Segan said a network’s speed depends on such things as the technology itself, the number of cellphone towers and capacity.

“If you don’t have enough towers and they’re overloaded that slows down the network,” said Segan, who is managing editor of PCMag Mobile in New York.

“Various components come into play and make these claims very difficult to prove.”

Bell and Telus now have HSPA-plus (High Speed Packet Access) wireless networks, part of the GSM family of wireless standards that is used by Rogers and increasingly accepted as the world standard.

Prior to the November launch of the new advanced HSPA network, Bell and Telus were in the CDMA camp (Code Division Multiple Access) that has been widely used in North America and some other parts of the world.

The HSPA technology allows faster downloads of music, software applications and video streaming.

It’s currently the “absolute, fastest, hottest network technology,” Segan said, but noted there are almost no devices that can support the full network speed it offers.

If all three carriers have the same network technology, the speed should be roughly the same, he said, adding the Bell and Telus networks could be a bit faster because they’re newer.

Stewart said going forward, the fight won’t about which carrier has the best technology because they will all essentially have the same networks and it will be about price.

“Right now this is more about marketing than it is about sustainable advantage.”

Bell also says on its website that it has the fastest and most reliable network. Telus spokesman Shawn Hall said Bell and Telus shared the cost of building their networks, have a roaming agreement and isn’t taking on Bell over this.

“It is essentially the same network as ours, which is the largest and the fastest,” Hall said.

Segan said what’s important for consumers is their network experience.

“These claims are all just advertising. Ask people where you live and where you work about reliability and beyond that assume that everybody’s got pretty much similar speeds.”