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 Spécial 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.


    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thank you so much for your amazing article. I have been searching for a phone to import into Canada and use on Sasktel's new 3G+ system and your description and information has made that 100 times easier!

    3. Why is there a pair of frequencies, in the case of Rogers; why 850Mhz and 1900Mhz?

      Is there on frequency for receiving and one for sending or is it that one region has 850Mhz and another 1900Mhz.

      I have a Rogers cell and a 3G modem and I plan on buying an external antenna, should I buy one for 850mhz or one for 1900mhz?

      Thanks for the great article.


    4. Jacques,

      The pairing of those frequencies isn't a pairing as such as it was arbitrarily picked to be used by GSM / Cellphones as the government opened up new spectrum when the original 850-spectrum was getting crowded.

      The antenna issue is a bit more difficult, as technically you could get an antenna that supports a specific frequency, but there is no way to know which frequency the phone or modem is currently operating on. Say, your phone switches from 3G to Edge(2G), your phone will switch most likely switch frequencies, making the antenna for the specific frequency essentially useless. I am by no means an expert for these things, but perhaps look into a multiband antenna that could support the frequencies you require.

      Thanks for the kind words Jacques and Ian!

    5. Thanks for the informative article, Johannes,
      I'm currently researching how I can get my South African phone to work on a Canadian network - seems I'm limited to Rogers or possibly Fido - and this has been really helpful.

    6. Hey Hallam,

      please see the edit that I posted this morning. I totally spaced to mention that phones may have quad band capability, but also require a modem that supports UMTS/HSPA to work on SaskTel's network.

      If you have a phone that requires 2G (EDGE/GPRS) then yes, you're correct that you are limited to Rogers/Fido network.

    7. Thanks very much for the great info....
      I have been trying my best to decide if I should pull the pin and buy several iPhone4's from Apple. I purchase phones for my staff so I would buy about 6 of them to begin with.
      The issue does not seem to be the Sasktel network as i'm assuming they will work fine here. I'm just concerned if they will allow me to roam into AB or not. Your piece reads like there is a roaming agreement with Telus. So is it safe to assume that roaming in AB should not be an issue?
      My next issue is I also need to roam into MB. That is a little harder as the MTS system is not 3G but there seems to be some type of upcoming a partnership where Rodgers and MTS are going to share towers. Do you know if using a Sasktel iPhone will be an issue in MB?



    8. Hello, question for you? I am on the Sasktel network & want to pick up a phone for my wife. Now being she is still locked in her contract, I am looking to get an unlocked phone & maybe save some $ from what full retail is on Sasktel. Now I want to pickup a 9700 or 9780, but I need to know which carrier I can get one from & ensure it will work with Sasktel? Will Rogers, Telus & Bell phones all work, or am I limited to where I buy from? With Christmas soon upon us, I'd like to know as quick as possible. Thanks for the good read & the help with this matter.

    9. Doug,
      The iPhone 4 will work on SaskTel's network with a few minor alterations. As SaskTel is currently not an official carrier of the iPhone iTunes does not carry the network settings (APN - Access Point Name) which means you have to enter them manually into the phone.

      SaskTel has posted an article on how to do this:

      Please note this only works with unlocked iPhones purchased through Apple as the iPhones purchased from carriers are SIM-locked to that carrier, and I'm not sure if the carriers will unlock the phone for you even if purchased outright (See the comment below to Wookie316 for more information).

      On a side note, Visual Voice Mail is a carrier setting and is currently not supported by SaskTel, this just means that you have to check your Voice Mail the old-fashioned way. As soon as SaskTel is an official carrier of the iPhone you can add a VVM package to your cell phone service and it'll kick in without problem.

      You are correct, an unlocked iPhone on SaskTel will roam with Telus without any problems, so Alberta won't be a problem. I'm not confident enough with MTS to tell you that it would work. If you visit and click the "Canada" tab, they say to check Telus' coverage map for Canadian roaming. Click the link provided, choose your province, and zoom out/move the map to Manitoba. Judging by the map it looks like MTS is very far behind on their 3G+ rollout and only Winnipeg has coverage. And since is practically useless to find information on, perhaps a quick call to SaskTel would answer more questions? Sorry, I don't know enough about Manitoba's status other than "Telus towers".

      Theoretically all phones you buy from Rogers, Telus or Bell would work with SaskTel's network as the network is identical, except for some phone specific details. The problem is that the phones may be carrier locked - meaning, a phone you purchase from Rogers will be locked to only work with a Rogers SIM Card, any attempt to power up the phone with a different carrier's SIM would have the phone not connect to the network. The NDP is working on fixing this problem by introducing "C-560 - The Cellphone Freedom Act" (, but I haven't heard much on its status.

      Ask customer service before you purchase a phone from a carrier outright if it will be possible to use the phone with a different carrier's SIM Card.

    10. What about these new unlocked phones they advertise on Ebay? If the phone is already unlocked, will it work fine?

    11. Wookie316, if the phone is listed as unlocked and you trust the seller, then you only have to worry about matching up the frequencies. I assume it's some smartphone? Ensure that the phone can do HSPA+ on 850/1900 and you're set.

    12. Hi Johannes - Thanks for the quick reply. Your knowledge and insight is amazing.



    13. Talked to Sasktel & they said an unlocked Bell, Rogers or Telus will work fine. 9700 BB or 9780 Is what I am after.

    14. Thank you so much for this post. This cleared up a lot of the questions I had and then some. :)

    15. Hi Johannes
      I have just returned from the UK and foolishly bought a Blackberry curve thinking my daughter could just slip her Bell sim card in it how wrong was i. Is there a way to convert a gsm to hspc ????

    16. It looks like Sasktel's HSPA is only operating on 1900 and not 850 because 850 is still being used for legacy CDMA. This seems to answer why Sasktel is getting such poor signal coverage throughout the city on 3G phones. 1900Mhz isn't as strong to penetrate buildings like the 850 Mhz band can.

    17. Thank you very much for this informative post. I had no idea that voice calls could work on a purely 3G network, like the one from Sasktel. This explains why my W960i wouldn't work with Sasktel. And Rogers doesn't support 3G for where I live in SK. And I'm stuck on a 3 year Rogers contract that came with the Xperia X10. :(

    18. Unbelievable knowledge…. Keep doing the good work. I love to read and I enjoy quality information. Thank you. Now I have a problem?? We have galaxy S GT I9000. Initially bought from Optus, Australia. Completely unlocked. We used it with rogers in Ontario. now tried it to use with SaskTel and unable to use it. Can you help. I’m looking to see, if they are compatible. SaskTel carries this phone and the bandwidth setting are just the same as ours. If you need more infor please let me know. If you want I can send my email id too. Thank you very much.

    19. Kenny: Sorry, for the late response. It's not possible to convert a GSM phone to run on HSPA as the modem inside the phone wouldn't support it.

      jeshurundaniel: You may be able to get out of your Rogers contract within 30 days (or X amount of minutes used) by claiming poor coverage. Talk to your dealer or dial *611 to talk to a customer service rep.

      Gaya: Does nothing work at all? Or does voice work and data doesn't? If data doesn't work, go talk to a SaskTel dealer (or call the hotline 1-800-SASKTEL), as your Access Point Name (APN) settings may be incorrect.

    20. Hope you can help as sasktel does not know how.
      I have Nokia 6120 classic bought in Europe.
      It works good every where in rural areas.When i travel to Prince Albert or Saskatoon i have no service at all.Leaving city it works again.I need to be 40 km from city to have service.Why is this??

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