Seybold's take: SaskTel uses multiple technologies for mobile broadband

I recently spent three days in the city of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada presenting two Wireless Universities and a keynote address for SaskTel, the provincial telecommunications provider. SaskTel is both a wired and wireless provider, and while it operates like a public company, it is backed by the provincial government, which both helps and hinders its deployment of services.

Regina, population 90,000, is the largest city in Saskatchewan, which comprises a little more than one million people in mostly metro areas. The rest of the population is spread out in rural farm areas and in the oil fields to the north. The provincial government has charged SaskTel with providing broadband access to as high a percentage of the population as can be covered using whatever technology fits best.

SaskTel has deployed DSL (limited to 3 KM from each switch), EV-DO Rev A, MCS point-to-multi-point broadband, and some fiber, and is experimenting with fiber to the home in some metro areas. However, since its winters are so severe, most of the utilities are buried, making it expensive to lay fiber.

SaskTel's new plans call for overlaying its existing EV-DO Rev A network with HSPA in anticipation of moving to LTE in the future, and expanding HSPA coverage beyond the EV-DO Rev A coverage as deployed today. It will also be expanding its MCS network where it makes sense, deploying additional DSL circuits and then filling in the truly rural areas with satellite access.

In other words, SaskTel will make use of a variety of technologies depending on what makes the most sense from an economic perspective. This project is in the planning stages and the company has a large, very capable engineering team working together to determine what resources are already deployed, which ones can be expanded for coverage, and where to build out its new HSPA network, deploy fiber, and then use the satellite system for final fill-in. These engineers are aware of the latency issues with satellite but understand that in some places, such as remote farms, there is no economical way to deploy the other technologies.

While SaskTel is certainly looking at all of the options and carefully planning its strategy, its move to HSPA has been prompted by the fear that EV-DO Rev A will not be supported well into the future (I don't believe this to be the case) and this may become an issue when it comes to devices. Because it is a small wireless provider, SaskTel has to purchase handsets that are the same as those bought larger networks in order to take advantage of volume pricing. Today, its inventory of phones resembles Sprint's offering.

Going forward, SaskTel would need wireless devices capable of both CDMA and HSPA, and I don't believe any other network operator will have a need for such a device. Thus it will have to run two different networks with two different types of devices. In conversations with SaskTel personnel, I discussed the possibility of using its outlying cell sites to deliver point-to-point broadband using EV-DO Rev A or HSPA. They have been discussing this internally and are struggling with how they could limit use of these devices to specific cell sites or cell sectors so they could not be used in busier portions of the network. So far, their decision is to not deploy these types of devices.

Being owned by the provincial government has some advantages when it comes to providing broadband services. Since the government has made broadband access to everyone in the province a priority, SaskTel is receiving financial assistance from the government to deploy broadband into areas where a publicly traded company would not. In our discussions, SaskTel folks indicated that at this point they are responding to the mandate to deploy broadband as described above--that is, to employ different technologies for different parts of their coverage area. So far, the government is satisfied with their plans. They also mentioned that the government could require them to run fiber to every home in the province and they would have to do so, but it would be funded by the government.

SaskTel does have competitors. Rogers runs its own wireless network in the province and Bell Mobility uses the SaskTel network, as does Virgin. More recently, during Canada's AWS-1 auction, two new companies ended up with 9 percent of the AWS-1 spectrum, which could mean two more competitors in this area of only a million people. Today, the area's wireless penetration is about 67 percent and growing, and while its data usage is limited, it is seeing a rapid growth in demand for data services.

SaskTel's competitors are public or private companies that do not have the luxury of government support, but this does not appear to keep competitors at bay, which in turn keeps SaskTel's pricing competitive.

It is interesting to me that a company such as SaskTel, which has the backing of its own government as an owner, has come to the conclusion that the way to deploy broadband in its province is to use a variety of technologies. Keeping in mind that the objective is to serve as much of the population as possible with broadband, it is using a mixture of technologies depending on which technology best fits which area--a lesson we should learn from this small telecom company in Canada.

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.