The Blue Giant opens its doors: an inside look at Bell’s wireless tech

Bell sign

“There’s the theoretical discussion, and then there’s the reality discussion. We’d rather underpromise and overdeliver.”

I’m talking to Bruce Rodin, Bell’s Vice President of Wireless Technology, inside a closet-sized room at the end of a long corridor, at the company’s Mississauga-based testing facilities. There are RF testing chambers to our right and, across the hall, a Tim Hortons teeming with caffeine junkies. He’s telling me about LTE-Advanced, which Bell recently launched without much fanfare in a number of Canadian cities.

Rodin is a technical guy, and talks with the kind of knowing confidence that leads you believe he’d use terms like “re-farming” and “southbound bandwidth” whether you could keep up or not.

It’s interesting hearing about all of this because Bell’s network, large swaths of which is deployed in partnership with Telus through a spectrum sharing agreement, is a bright spot in what has otherwise been a challenging year for the telecom giant.

There was its net neutrality violation case, where the company was held up as an example by Canada’s telecom regular of how not to act.

Another scuffle with the CRTC over basic television packages saw the company’s then-media head, Kevin Crull, interfere with CTV’s coverage of the decision, which led to his resignation a few weeks later.

Some legacy CDMA equipment – in 70's brown, for good measure.

Some legacy CDMA equipment – in old school brown, for good measure.

It’s also interesting following all of this amidst changes to the telecommunications landscape. In early 2014, Bell’s mobile subscriber numbers were surpassed by Telus, just as the two companies were attempting to build Canada’s widest-reaching LTE network to take on Rogers. But many Canadians don’t know about the agreement, and even the most informed insiders aren’t privy to the minutiae of its implementation.

What we do know is that, back in 2008, when Bell and Telus were offering CDMA service, both carriers realized that SIM-based standards like HSPA and LTE, the former of which Rogers was beginning to expand across the country, were the future. In order to get there quickly without overextending capital budgets, they would need to work together.

“When we committed to HSPA in 2008, we knew we were doing LTE; we just knew we were going through HSPA to get there.” It was largely the proliferation of the iPhone, which at the time Rogers offered exclusively, that spurred the move to faster 3G, but to Rodin the endgame was always ultra-fast LTE.

Cisco racks

Cisco racks

But fourth-generation wireless networks, inside which LTE sits, are not just about speed; these deployments are more efficient, packing more bits into the same amount of spectrum as their HSPA+ counterparts. And as we often hear from the carriers, we’re in a spectrum crunch. You’d be surprised to learn, then, that Bell has done quite well for itself in the spectrum game, and now has enough to carry LTE signals on no fewer than four bands.

“Our focus is on Band 2, Band 4, and re-farm. Most part of the re-farm is just a software upgrade. It’s not like we’re replacing the radio or anything,” Rodin explains. For the untechnical, Rodin is divulging one of the many untold secrets of the wireless industry: that existing spectrum can be repurposed, or “re-farmed,” for use with newer standards.

FutureDemandStudyFig6-1-2

Image source: Industry Canada

 

As recently as 2010, Bell was significantly behind Rogers in how much spectrum it controlled. Today, though Industry Canada has divested its ownership of both the 700Mhz and BRS (2500Mhz) frequencies, in addition to releasing an additional 50Mhz of AWS-3 spectrum, the breakdown you see above is little altered (caveat: carriers like Wind and Videotron have obtained a fair amount more in absolute terms).

In the 700Mhz auction, for example, Rogers snapped up what could be argued was higher-quality spectrum – Band A&B, what the company considers “beachfront property” – in all but the least populated regions across the country. Bell and Telus split much of the rest, cumulatively appropriating a larger number than their rival, but configuring these disparate bands to work together in some parts of Canada will pose a problem.

“In time, when we deal with the interference issues, we’ll work with Telus to open up those bands,” Rodin says.

My interview with Rodin was ostensibly to talk about LTE-Advanced, an umbrella term for a number of technical achievements that, among other things, allows two smaller channels, often side by side but many times not, to work together to achieve faster speeds with greater efficiency in more places.

To visualize this practice, think of a football stadium crowd surrounding a field. From far enough away, the audience is considered a cohesive hole, but for administrative purposes it is divided into quadrants. At some points in the game, the announcers will ask different parts of the crowd to chant together. One section could be asked to sing with another from across the field, another on its own.

LTE racks, divided by band

LTE racks, divided by band

In the wireless world, under the LTE-Advanced standard, this is called “carrier aggregation,” and it’s being used in Canada to allow Bell to catch up with Rogers in an area it has traditionally trailed: capacity. Since Bell can now command different parts of the crowd to chant together, it has managed to bridge some of that performance gap.

So why doesn’t Bell shout this fact from the rooftops, like Rogers has with its now-defunct LTE Max branding and, more recently, its claim of being Canada’s first network to support LTE-Advanced?

“Maybe when we get a little more consistency with the rollout, it will be easier to articulate,” Rodin says. “We have 10Mhz in some area, 15 in another, 20 in others. In many parts of the country, we can’t get 20Mhz sounthbound until we shut down CDMA.”

That’s a problem with the piecemeal distribution of spectrum across the country: Industry Canada, in dividing the nation into sections and, in the interest of fairness, limiting larger carriers to how much spectrum they can bid on, has created a Frankenstein monster of wireless oversight.

Many Canadians balk at the idea that a company like Bell requires more spectrum to successfully run its wireless business. One of the most vertically integrated companies in the world, Bell owns just about every link in the chain, from the spectrum to the network to the stores, distribution and content. And that content is, increasingly, video.

FutureDemandStudyFig6-1-7

Image source: Industry Canada

 

From a network operating perspective, video is expensive. It requires orders of magnitude more bandwidth than audio or static images and, increasingly, it is replacing those mediums as the default form of content consumed on mobile devices. In 2011, Industry Canada predicted that data traffic demand in 2015 would be 30 times its 2010 levels. But it wrongly predicted that HSPA would carry the majority of that traffic.

“This year we’ll get 50/50 split between LTE and HSPA,” says Rodin, who admits to being taken aback by how fast people took to the new standard. Thanks to companies like Qualcomm, Samsung and LG that pushed the technology while incumbents like Apple waited until it matured, Canada’s adoption of LTE, or Long Term Evolution, has been among the fastest in the developed world.

“We got here,” he says, looking at his phone, referring to his company and the country in which it operates, “being seven years behind the US in rolling out 700Mhz,” where the process began in 2008. Industry Canada, in deciding how to parcel out spectrum, typically takes its cues from the FCC, but despite similarities there are always considerations for legacy operations. Canada took longer to retire its analog television service, for which 700Mhz was originally plotted, but in doing so learned a lot from its American counterpart.

A million voicemails live inside this one cabinet

A million voicemails live inside this one cabinet

Canadian carriers actually benefited from this delay, as it allowed the advancement of baseband chips from Qualcomm to catch up to the reality of spectrum ownership. In 2011, when Verizon and AT&T began deploying LTE across 700Mhz, smartphones were not interoperable, despite “supporting 700Mhz” out of the box. In fact, AT&T and Verizon were accused of ordering equipment that actively blocked the signals of its competitors, so even if a device was later released that supported multiple bands across the 700Mhz spectrum they would neither roam, nor operate with a different SIM card.

“In the olden days there was an AT&T ecosystem and a Verizon ecosystem,” Rodin tells me, “but Apple changed that. They said, ‘We want to go with a global SKU; this is an Apple ecosystem.'” Apple released a single device, the iPhone 5s, that supported both Band 13 and Band 17.

Rodin stops for a moment, waiting for me to acknowledge that I understand. He waits a beat, then says, “all you need to know is that we’re going to cover 98% of Canada in super-fast LTE by the end of 2015.” He goes on to explain that while Rogers may have an easier time deploying 700Mhz because it owns that aforementioned “beachfront” property in the country’s most populated regions, Bell and Telus together own more spectrum and have just as many options to fill in the coverage gaps.

Bell treats its spectrum sharing agreement with Telus as one would the sharing of a chocolate bar with a diabetic: there’s tremendous enjoyment in one bite, but eating the whole thing would likely lead to disaster.

“We had plans about a carrier aggregation strategy that he had to delay in bringing to the standards body in fear of Telus and Rogers finding out. We took a hit on that,” referring to the combination of Band 2, 5 and Band 29, the latter a combination of unpaired channels in the upper 700 that can be used to offer additional downlink capacity in high-traffic areas.

“Network evolution is about managing data load,” he says, accounting for times, such as during popular sporting events, that video traffic is likely to be higher.

cravetv-ios-1

In December, Bell launched Crave TV, a hybrid over-the-air service that, though required to be paired with a TV subscription, exists as a standalone app on iOS and Android. According to Jon Taylor, vice president of Digital Products and Strategy at Bell Media, it took until now for the country’s networks to be ready for something like it.

“Crave exists in the white space between Netflix and ‘catch-up’,” he says, noting the increased amount on-demand and PVR’d content Canadians watch every day.

Bell considers itself the market leader of such projects, though Rogers and Shaw jointly launched their own hybrid-OTT product, Shomi, a couple of months before Crave. “Canadians still have more TV subscriptions than internet,” says Taylor. In 2013, the company retained the rights, through its purchase of Astral Media, to HBO’s current and back catalogue of content, including popular shows like The Wire and Game of Thrones. In January of this year, it did the same with Showtime, another distributor of premium television programming. Together, they comprise one of the deepest collections of high-quality TV content ever compiled, and Bell makes no apologies for wanting to retain control over who watches it.

On March 9th, HBO announced that it would begin offering a true over-the-top service that wouldn’t rely on a television subscription. Earlier in the year, at CES, Dish Network debuted Sling TV, a $20 per month streaming bundle that includes channels like ESPN, AMC, TNT, TBS and a dozen others. The trend appears to be gaining traction in the United States, but while Canadians will be able to access a $25 “Skinny Basic” television package by next March, it doesn’t appear that northern cord-cutters will be able to benefit from similar streaming services anytime soon.

“It’s not cheap to retain those HBO rights,” Taylor explains. He says that while creating an over-the-top service akin to HBO Now was considered – “You should have heard some of those early meetings” – the economics didn’t make sense. “When we announced Crave was going to be just $4 per month, people in the audience actually gasped.”

Taylor wouldn’t say how much of Crave’s intended binge watching is done over mobile networks, but Bell’s recent spat with the CRTC ensures that it won’t ever again be billing its customers differently for its own content than what it does for competitors like Netflix.

“Netflix is driving a path for innovation and content,” says Taylor. “We think [Crave] can work within the system.”

Where the device testing is done. This room blocks outside signals, ensuring that conditions can be rigorously controlled

Where the device testing is done. This room blocks outside signals, ensuring that conditions can be rigorously controlled

Back in the small room at Bell’s quality testing labs, Rodin takes me through the series of chambers where his technicians perform tests on everything from legacy CDMA equipment – “We still need those for a while yet” – to the in-progress IMS, short for IP Multimedia Core Network Subsystem, infrastructure that will power Bell’s future, including the eventual rollout of Voice over LTE.

“The fastest way to get Qualcomm to stand up and take action is to tell them we’re talking to Intel.”

Every time Bell releases a new phone, its wireless performance is strenuously tested against all possible band combinations and tower deployments, especially since the company uses both Nokia and Huawei equipment. He also says that companies like Samsung tend to treat all carriers equally, and will work hard to support any and all frequency combinations. “We’ll play companies off one another,” says Rodin. “If Qualcomm doesn’t support something, or doesn’t want to, we’ll talk to Intel.

“The fastest way to get Qualcomm to stand up and take action is to tell them we’re talking to Intel.”

That’s how Bell continues to add customers. Last quarter, the company added nearly 120,000 wireless subscribers as it and Telus continued to steal postpaid clients away from Rogers. And while its key performance metrics like ARPU and data revenue continue to rise, keeping its shareholders happy, the company realizes that many of its customers are not.

Products like Crave TV are meant to counter some of those ideas that Bell is a monolithic, top-heavy institution with too many divisions, many of which don’t communicate with one another. Like Rogers and Telus, Bell is trying to improve its customer service practices, with better-trained representatives offering more comprehensive solutions and fewer hand-wringing conversations that end with, “I’m going to have to transfer you.”

“We have to be scrappy,” Taylor says, admitting that the team behind Crave TV treats it more like a startup than anything the company has heretofore done. “We’ve had to create silos of innovation,” he continues, a nebulous term that brings to mind the facile declarations by fake founders on HBO show Silicon Valley, the rights to which Bell owns. On content alone, Crave goes way beyond what Netflix Canada offers, but technologically the service needs to expand its offerings. While on iOS it supports AirPlay, Apple’s streaming standard, the app feels slow when compared to Shomi, itself an example of the other extreme: style over substance.

Rodin expects that Bell’s customers will continue to pack the airwaves full of video content, his company’s or another’s, and feels confident that his network is the best in the country. We end the conversation by talking about the future, of small cells and WiFi offloading, of Band 12 and Category 9. These are terms I devour as I seek to understand the intricacies of what it means to operate a mobile network in Canada.

Where Canadians see high prices and poor customer support, Rodin and Taylor, with the calm verisimilitude that appears unique to executives of vertically integrated companies, offer an alternative.

“We’re a dedicated group of people trying to put out a great product,” Rodin says. He repeatedly uses the word ‘commitment’ to illustrate that fact. But he has it easier than most of his peers: he doesn’t have to work hard to prove that Bell’s network, and Canada’s networks in general, are among the world’s most robust. It’s up to others, like incoming Bell Wireless president Blaik Kirby, to sell Canadians on its value.

Comments

  • Fiddlesticks

    While Canadians may be fast adopters of LTE, video streaming congestion won’t matter because you’ll blow over your 500MB data limit in the blink of an eye.

    • Tim M

      500MB in a blink of an eye? I guess that would be true if LTE was 500MB/s and the video being streamed was more that 500MB

    • Hyperbole isn’t for everyone.

    • Adam

      Who actually only has 500MB these days?

    • People who can’t afford more.

    • Adam

      Well, if you can’t afford more, then don’t use more. It’s not difficult to understand. Just because the internet is fast doesn’t mean you need to go nuts. Live within your means.

      It’s like saying just because gas is cheap I can afford to drive faster and get my car impounded for stunt driving.

    • Who in the world wants to live in their means? That sounds about as fun as saving for retirement. You are preaching to the wrong choir here. Now excuse me while I extend my Visa limit to purchase my Apple Edition watch.

    • It’s Me

      10 blinks? 73?

  • yadeed

    Ali Baba (علي بابا‎ ʿAlī Bābā ) open his cave.

  • TheShinraCorp .

    Well I’ll be honest, this article painted another picture of Bell. yeah their service still isn’t the best (I always go with French services to prevent outsourcing calls) but dang they don’t cut back when it comes to equipment. These are some of the best equipment the industry has to offer. I’m with videotron on a mobile and internet bundle for 99$ that offers more in the mobile part than Bell’s, however at the cost of barely any phones working on Videotron (Windows Phones anyway.)

    • van_N

      Ha! That’s a good idea, now I just have to brush up on my francais.

    • gab_gagnon

      It is true that Videotron doesn’t offer any good Windows Phone. But still, the company offers every major phone available. The only thing with Vidéotron is that its network can’t be as robust as Bell’s.

      Everyone knows that Bell’s network is awesome but what everyone wants, is money in its pocket and Vidéotron delivers a product with much more value than its competitors.

    • TheShinraCorp .

      Well I’ll see if I’ll stick with Videotron if the newest Lumia flagship supports HSPA 1700/2100 or not, if not well I guess I’ll just go with Virgin or something….

  • kkritsilas

    A couple of small details:

    1. That so called “Legacy CDMA equipment in 1970s brown” is most likely legacy Nortel TDMA equipment. And its from the 1980s-1990s.
    2. The picture of the “Newer CDMA equipment” isn’t CDMA equipment. Its rack mount servers and what appear to be Cisco routers. Cisco has never produced cellular equipment, or RF equipment (aside from Wi-Fi stuff).

    Aside from that, this is a pretty good illustration of what the cellular landscape looks like in Canada. Its too bad that the spectrum auctions didn’t/couldn’t allow for contiguous blocks, but that tends to be true for many types of RF communications, not just cellular.

    As for the ” We’re a dedicated group of people trying to put out a great product”, this is typical blathering of a high level executive who really doesn’t understand how pissed off people are. On one hand, he is trying to get video over cellular out, and thinks it will be a huge hit, on the other hand, his marketing department is busy cutting data plan caps and increasing prices. How long will it take to blow through a 500MB data plan when watching a TV show, or a hockey game? Answer: not many shows, maybe one full hockey game. People are starting to realize that, and the carriers are going to need to make a decision, soon.

    • Avgvstvs

      And the fact that the Cisco router on it says quite clearly “LTE MME” lol…

    • NetworkGuru1984

      1. The CDMA MTX is actually a DMS250. That’s exactly what it looks like.

      2. Cisco bought Starent. That is the Starent ST40 badged as a Cisco ASR5000. Clearly labelled as an MME. But, you could also load software to make it a CDMA PDSN, UMTS SGSN/GGSN, LTE MME, SGW, PGW… and a variety of other things.

    • CorrectingFOROURFUTURES

      Close.. a DMS100 🙂

    • Ramen Booko

      Yeah, the ASR5000 pictured can actually be used as a CDMA PDSN, I think they are called Home Agents If I’m not mistaken.

  • Mad-elph

    Is it dangerous for you to release a pic with what looks like an IP address on it? Couldn’t a bot be set to attack that pretty easily?

    With regards to the content, well done giving us something more to consider. I especially like that the responses below have so far been from technical people. Shows that this site pulls in all sorts of eyes, just most don’t bother to respond.

    Give us more content like this, technical with a bit of watering down. Perhaps visit Telus, Roger, Wind, Mobilicity and Videotron for a peak at their plans from behind the infrastructure curtain. Much more refreshing than the flash bang Marketing gives us.

    • You mean the Cisco ASR 5000 with 172.16.43.15 tagged on it? 172.16.X.X is a private network, like 10.X.X.X or 192.168.X.X. No need to worry about that.

  • MassDeduction

    “all you need to know is that we’re going to cover 98% of Canada in super-fast LTE by the end of 2015.”

    Not hardly. They’re going to cover 98% of *Canadians*, they’ll be nowhere close to 98% of Canada.

    Interesting to learn that they consider band 2 (PCS) an important band for LTE. I guess they must be refarming in earnest. It propagates nearly identically to AWS, so the two are co-located and an excellent pairing for carrier aggregation. Makes a lot of sense.

    Telus is already re-farming band 5 as well. To me, that’s of the most benefit once VoLTE launches.

    This is the first I recall reading a timetable for Bell’s shutdown of its CDMA2000 network. 2017? Interesting. I wonder if they’ll be the last to take theirs down (Telus already is), or whether Saktel, MTS, or TBayTel will have CDMA2000 networks persisting beyond 2017? The CDMA2000 networks in the U.S. may be around for decades as Verizon and Sprint both made the mistake of not switching their 3G networks over to HSPA. Criticize Telus and Bell all you want, they were on the ball for that one. Their timing was excellent.

  • ToniCipriani

    Good. Now show us the level 7 routers that’s used for data tracking so we can come in and smash it.

  • McNucklefuts

    I love this!
    Would be very very interested in seeing more of thus behind the scenes network stuff for all the companies!
    Thanks!!

  • Canucks Canucks

    Sometimes I am wondering if Bell is secretly backing up tech blog like mobilesyrup. Most if not all the free phone contests were from Bell (Samsung S6 Edge, Note 4, S5, HTC One M8 and M9, etc.). Now you are sugar coating Bell right now. Just my personal opinion.

    • Yeah, glad to those 50% profit margins aren’t going to waste. /s

    • kkritsilas

      Yes, they invest money in foreign companies (Huawei) that helped drive real Canadian companies (Nortel, soon Blackberry) out of business by stealing their technology. Those old line companies only employed tens of thousands of Canadians. We have carriers in Canada that went off shore to buy cellular equipment all for a couple of percentage points in lower price.

      Isn’t it nice to know you are supporting carriers of such high levels of social responsibility by paying for overpriced, low data cap plans?

    • Canucks Canucks

      When people put “:P” or “/s”, it means people are being sarcastic. I am in no way supporting high price low data plans.

      I agree that some carriers like Bell went off shore for employments. I don’t think Shaw or Rogers did but I could be wrong. Look at Apple. Best customer satisfaction year after year and they off shore their production lines.

    • kkritsilas

      Actually, both Bell and Telus were Nortel customers in the CDMA days. They both turned their backs on Nortel when they started to buy HSDPA equipment.

      Huawei equipment is essentially a direct copy of Nortel equipment, to the extent that some of Huawei’s cards plugged into, and worked in Nortel’s frames.

      Rogers never bought Nortel equipment. That was because, at the time, Nortel didn’t build GSM equipment in North America (then again, neither did Ericcson, but that is beside the point).

      My comments were general, not directly intended towards Canuck Canuck.

  • nekkidtruth

    Excellent and informative article Daniel. Thank you for taking the time to put it together!

  • Fouet

    An awesome idea would be a documentary from Bell, Telus, Rogers, Wind, Videotron which shows every step of a process to there networks and systems from where they connect to the internet, to the people installing cell towers to the customer service answering calls.

    Just an idea for a Youtube documentary.

  • AndroidRootGuy

    Great article!! Specially the details about Bell/Telus tower sharing. Can anyone confirm that sharing only takes place IF there are no Bell coverage, so a Bell user will be using Telus tower. But it does NOT happen if both Bell and Telus cover the same area, say Toronto for example ?

    • Pauly Pins

      The tower sharing agreement between Bell and Telus these days (for HSPA+ and LTE networks) is quite different than it was back in the old CDMA days. With CDMA, Bell and Telus each owned and operated their own separate networks – they had a roaming agreement in much of the country, but in major urban centres (like big cities) where they both had spectrum/licenses, they each had their own infrastructure…so it was possible that a Bell user would have better coverage than a Telus user in the same location, and vice-versa. Today (with HSPA+ and LTE), they’ve engaged in what’s called a MOCN (multi operator core network). This means that the entire RAN (radio access network – e.g. all the towers) is one single shared entity between both companies. They each have their own core networks (routing, switching, etc.), but every HSPA+/LTE site contains shared radio equipment that broadcasts both Bell and Telus PLMN codes. The HSPA+ network goes even further where both carriers pool and share spectrum. LTE spectrum sharing is a bit unclear since Telus claims that while they share physical infrastructure (as I described above under the MOCN arrangement), they say that they don’t share spectrum. However, there have been reports of Bell users being connected to Telus LTE spectrum bands and vice-versa 🙂

  • Adil Butt

    Great article, thank you to the author for quite an in-depth and transparent look at one of the Big 3. Just unfortunate that people are still too narrow-minded to understand that this is not a discussion of plans/marketing/etc; it is a discussion on the progress and future of the Telecoms industry within Canada and how it drives tech progression as it endures its own growth within the next half-decade, if not more.

  • Dinsdale

    Great article. Actual substance on the web. Who would have thought it could be used for something other than click bate?