Wednesday, January 7, 2009


The Canadian Radio, Television and telecommunications Commission, the CRTC, says it will force cellular phone companies to change their systems so that dispatchers can locate the origin of 911 distress calls.

Earlier this week, an emergency call from a survivor of a plane crash near Quebec City was routed to Almonte, Ontario, an Ottawa suburb, because the cell-phone was registered in that community. In this case, the system worked and the proper authorities were able to respond. But; in recent years, a number of people have died after making 911 calls from cell phones, because dispatchers have been unable to tell where the person was.

I confess that I am of that generation that recalls when bank credit cards were first introduced to Canada. Chargex, now known as Visa, and Master Charge, now Master Card, came along in the free market economic boom of the mid-1960's. The positive fall-out for our free market competitive system is legendary. Until the most recent downturn of the investment sector, it has served North Americans well, and made us pretty much the envy of the rest of the developed world. It does however have some drawbacks.

In the rapidly advancing technologies related to communications it seems that the free market system which allows competition to set the operating parameters has been holding us back. Since competitors do not have to pick the same technology there is frequently a complete lack of coordination and compatibility across systems and networks.

In the years following the Second World War, the development of FM Stereo radio broadcasts languished because no one seemed to be able to agree on a universal technology until "multiplex" came along. Its senior cousin, AM-Stereo, never really got out of the gate because of 5 competing technologies. Everyone pretty much remembers the "tug-o-war" between Beta and VHS in the development of home video. More recently the debate has consumed "Blue Ray-vs-HD"; and in the business of satellite delivered radio, the incompatibility of the XM technology and the Sirius system.

Cellular phone technology suffers from the same affliction. North America's cell phone system is considerably behind in its development and experts say it will remain that way "for a long time"; because of competition and the incompatibility of the major systems operated on the continent. In Europe and in Asia, operators decided years ago to adopt a single cellular network delivery system known as GSM...Global System Mobile. Accordingly, developers can add features and services in the full knowledge that cell phones are compatible across networks and that customers can roam between them.

In our North American context, GSM is used by Rogers in Canada. AT&T and T-Mobile in the United-States. The more cumbersome and older technology called CDMA, Code Division Multiple Access, is used in Canada by Bell Mobility and Telus; Sprint and Verizon in the United States. The two technologies are incompatible and change is unlikely. In each case carriers have sunk billions of dollars into their infrastructure and have been unwilling to abandon one or the other to advance the development of a continent-wide system.

In wireless telephony communications, every indication suggests that we North Americans will be behind for a long time. The CRTC wants 911 tracking in place by February of next year. That will be just one of the milestones along a very long route to bring Canada's cell phone technology on a par with those of Europe and Asia.

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