August 17, 2010

SaskTel's 3G+ Network and the State of Canada's GSM.

Edit Feb 11, 2013: I've added a new article detailing, in short, the frequencies used by Canadian carriers for their LTE networks.

Edit Nov 15, 2010 / Dec 19: I just realized I forgot to mention that phones that are Quad Band, may not necessarily be 3G data capable - voice should work without an issue. The modems in the phone may not support UMTS/HSPA, but only support 2G networks - this means that phones without UMTS/HSPA connectivity - but are Quad Band - will not support on SaskTel's data network, as there is no underlying 2G network for this phone to connect to. Please check the manufacturer's specifications to identify if the phone will work on a 3G data network. Again, quad band phones should have no issues connecting to voice services on SaskTel, but if the phone does not support HSPA/UMTS, only EDGE or GRPS data, then the phone will have no data capabilities on SaskTel's network. Thanks to a co-worker we tested this on SaskTel's network with an iPhone 1 (EDGE only) - the phone will not tie into the network at all. This means you need a 3G capable phone to place voice calls and transfer data on 3G only GSM networks (Telus, Bell, SaskTel).

By now you've heard that Canada's big three now all use the same technology for their third generation wireless. You hear buzzwords like, HSPA, 3G+, UMTS, GSM, MVNO and various others. What do these terms mean? Why is this important for you? I'm going to attempt to explain this to the best of my knowledge, but please realize I am no specialist in the cellphone field. I merely have an interest and natural curiosity for it.

Saskatchewan's Situation
SaskTel launched its new network yesterday. What does this mean for our future in mobility? In short, more freedom, better phones and a wider carrier selection with better roaming options (more so for us GSM lovin' folks). The Big Three are now all running 3G+ (UMTS/HSPA) networks on the same frequency bands with new carriers emerging on newer, uncommon frequency bands (AWS-1), i.e. Wind Mobile and Mobilicity.

Telus and Bell have their roaming agreements in place with SaskTel - I assume the same goes for their MVNOs, Virgin, Koodo, etc. Rogers is not part of the new roaming agreement and seems to have been shafted completely. They continue to run their own infrastructure and will probably not expand their coverage to compete with SaskTel's new network. Tony and I were discussing this morning that a wise step for Rogers would be to sell off their remaining towers in SK to SaskTel and enter a similar roaming agreement with SaskTel. We assume that Rogers is going to be bleeding customers to SaskTel and Telus (Bell does not sell phones in SK) due to coverage.

The biggest let-down today is still the fact that GSM carriers are allowed to SIM Lock devices. There is no way for consumers to acquire the unlock from the carrier directly at no charge. It is possible to purchase unlocked phones and use them a network of choice (watch for frequencies!), but a phone purchased through a carrier can not be taken to a different carrier without SIM unlocking the device.

The carrier frequencies (Big Three + SaskTel) in Canada are:
  • Rogers Wireless
    • GSM - 850/1900
    • UMTS/HSPA - 850/1900
  • Telus Mobility
    • GSM - N/A
    • UMTS/HSPA - 850/1900
  • Bell Mobility
    • GSM - N/A
    • UMTS/HSPA - 850/1900
  • SaskTel
    • GSM - N/A
    • UMTS/HSPA - 850/1900
There a difference to be noted. See how Rogers has GSM bands and UMTS bands, and the other carriers don't? Rogers has had a GSM network since 2001. As there was no 3G tech in 2001 the best they installed were GPRS/EDGE towers. When 3G became available, Saskatchewan towers located in Saskatoon and Regina got the upgrade, the rest of the infrastructure is 2G to this day. This means, when your 3G phone leaves the city, it will degrade to GPRS/EDGE before it shows "No Service". This will not happen with SaskTel towers, as every tower is getting 3G without underlying 2G. So, either you phone as UMTS/HSPA coverage, or no service. It won't be a big deal once the SaskTel network is fully expanded to it's current CDMA footprint. What you do have to watch out for, when you purchase a phone, are the tech specs about its connectivity. Most phones will ship with quadband GSM connectivity (850, 900, 1800, 1900) and a certain UMTS/HSPA connectivity (The edit from above applies here!). You want to make sure, for Canada, that your phone is 850/1900 UMTS to work on all three major carriers. If you only want it to work with Wind Mobile, go with AWS-1 (1700). If you're going to Europe, your Canadian carrier will have a roaming agreement (if possible) with a carrier in Europe that runs on UMTS 850/1900. Otherwise, you can make sure that your phone supports UMTS 2100, like the iPhone or Google's Nexus.
    Here's a list of carriers and an incomplete list of frequencies (and if they're an MVNO, who they piggy back off).

    If you have any questions, let me know in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.

    The massive Glossary
    • The Big Three
      • Describes Canada's largest mobile carriers. Rogers, Telus, Bell
    • GSM
      • Groupe Sp├ęcial Mobile is a worldwide consortium that defines the world's most predominant mobile telephony standard. Estimates assume 80% of the world's mobile traffic (voice, data) runs over the GSM stack.
    • GSM Stack
      • Over the years the standard has evolved into a stack of graceful degradation that allows full-fledged mobile carriers (I'll talk about this more later) to gracefully degrade service before showing "No Service" on devices.
      • Today, the lowest on the stack is GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) which allows voice and very, very basic data transfer from device to towers.
      • On top of GPRS is the EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution)
      • On top of EDGE is now, what's commonly referred to as 3G. A term I loath, as it defines absolutely nothing. This 3G spec allows "clearer" voice transfers and faster data packages.
      • So, graceful degradation: When I'm in Saskatoon, on Rogers, I have "3G". Should I leave the city, 3G is unavailable and my phone reverts to EDGE - an even weaker signal will show GPRS and finally "No Service". All the while I can still make phone calls, but my data speeds degrade to worse-than-dial-up. It's a three-stage "fail over" until you reach "No Service"
    • Full-fledged Carrier
      • What I mean by this is a carrier that has a full CDMA or GSM stack.
      • The new networks setup by Telus and Bell (subsequently SaskTel etc.) are not a full-fledged GSM stack. They are pure UMTS/HSPA (see below) implementations. Meaning, you either have 3G or "No Service". This compares to Rogers, a full-fledged GSM carrier, that will first degrade you to EDGE, then GPRS and finally "No Service"
    • CDMA
      • Code Division Multiple Access is a spec owned by Qualcomm that defines a different method over GSM to talk to each other. It is/was very predominant in North America.
    • CDMA Stack
      • Similar to GSM a full-fledged CDMA carrier will have a stack that degrades from 1X/EVDO (high speed stuff) to cdmaOne (low speed stuff) to "No Service"
    • HSPA
      •  High Speed Packet Access is an enhancement to UMTS (see below) that improves the speeds. Commonly referred to as 3G+
      • HSUPA, HSDPA describes the two specs in place for Upload and Download, respectively - part of HSPA spec.
    • UMTS
      • Universal Mobile Telecommunications Systems is a 3G technology based on the GSM stack. It is the basis for HSPA and LTE (4G, more later)
      • Europe commonly refers to its 3G as UMTS, while in North America we simply say 3G or HSPA.
    • 3G
      • In Canada there (were?) two competing 3G standards. UMTS/HSPA and CDMA2000 (aka. 1X/EVDO)
      • So, what SaskTel/Telus/Bell used to advertise as "3G" was their CDMA2000 network, Rogers was UMTS/HSPA - completely different specs, incompatible devices.
    • MVNO
      • Mobile Virtual Network Operator  describes a network operator that does not own any infrastructure and purely exists by piggy-backing off of other networks. Canadian examples include Koodo (Telus), Virgin (Bell) and Fido (Rogers).
    • SIM
      • Subscriber Identity Module is an integral part of GSM. It's the little chip card that defines your account. It tells the network who you are and what your phone number is.
      • This chip is magical. It allows you to take the chip out, put it into a different phone* and without having to tell your carrier, use that phone with the same number. Most phones even store the address book on the SIM so your numbers come with you from phone to phone.
      • * - This implies that phones you're using are SIM unlocked. At some point in time someone decided it would be a great idea to allow carriers to lock GSM phones. Meaning: If you purchase a phone from Rogers that phone will only accept SIM cards from Rogers. If an Orange, Vodafone or T-Mobile SIM is inserted the phone will not register with the network. This is now mostly outlawed in Europe and carriers have to provide the ability to unlock phones after a contract is due, or immediately unlock it when purchased at full-price. Bill C560 is proposing the same happen here in Canada.
    • 4G
      • Another umbrella term
      • The CDMA stack describes 4G as WiMax, currently implemented by Sprint in the US
      • The GSM stack describes 4G as LTE, being rolled out after 2011 in Canada.
      • The awesome difference? WiMax is boasting speeds comparable to GSM's 3G+. LTE has been tested (on an unsaturated network, obviously) at 100km/h with throughput of 60-100MBit/s.
    • GSM Frequencies / Bands
      • Frequencies are the Achilles of GSM. Every continent (heck, even country) is different. A lack of coordination, frequency availability has lead to confusion amongst consumers. If you've understood everything until now, here's where your head may start hurting.
      • GSM currently has 14 different bands defined.
      • The most common for GPRS/EDGE are GSM-900 (900MHz) and GSM-1800 (1800MHz)
        • In North America our common GRPS/EDGE frequencies are different, we run on GSM-850 (850MHz) and GSM-1900 (1900MHz)
      • So, the core four bands of GSM are the 900/1800 pair, and the 850/1900 pair. Does the term Quadband Phone ring a bell? A Quadband phone is a device that can understand communicate over all four major bands. So no matter if it's in Europe or North America - it will register with the network and work.
    • UMTS/HSPA Frequencies / Bands
      • This is going to hurt even more!
      • There are 14 defined frequency bands defined for the UMTS/HSPA spec - given, most of them are defined in the same range as the GSM frequencies, but the cellphone towers' equipment differs from GSM to UMTS.
      • The common UMTS/HSPA (3G) in Canada is 850MHz/1900MHz - the same that GSM runs on.
        • In Europe the common UMTS band is 1800MHz/2100Mhz (T-Mobile USA uses 2100MHz as well)
        • The new carriers (Videotron, Wind Mobile, Mobilicity) use a band commonly referred to as AWS or AWS-1 which, technically, is UMTS band 4 - 1700MHz.
          • This causes fantastic problems when you get a 3G device from Wind and try to use it on Rogers as you will not have any HSPA access on Rogers, unless that device supports multiple-band UMTS, meaning communication over different types of UMTS bands (similar to quadband GSM phones I mentioned earlier)
          • Example: iPhone. Its modem is quadband UMTS and quadband GSM.
          • Example: Nexus One. There are/were multiple versions of this phone. HTC/Google/T-Mobile made a conscious decision to cripple the modem on the Nexus One and instead release multiple versions of the phone. There were two versions of the phone, one that explicitly ran on quadband GSM and UMTS 2100 (T-Mobile USA and most of Europe) and one with quadband GSM and UMTS 850/1900 (AT&T USA, Canada, some of Europe)
          • Example: RIM (anything, really) - the have dual-modem "World Edition" phones that run natively CDMA but can also communicate over the GSM stack. When travelling to Europe the phone will convert the GSM "commands" to CDMA for the phone to process. RIM's GSM phones are not dual-modem and roam internationally by default.