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A Pair Of Resolutions For 2009

One has to do with the cable television industry, while the other involves automobiles, mobile phones and common sense.

January 1, 2009  

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Happy New Year everyone. It is time, once again, for a couple of resolutions for 2009.

The first being that I will watch less television.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you say. “This is a wireless column, right?” Sure thing, but sometimes one has to think outside the (idiot) box. And I got thinking about the relationship between TV and wireless late last year, while reading a newspaper report on the battle between cable companies and televisions networks over whether the broadcasters could charge money for their signals.

I will leave the finer points of the argument to others, but one sentence in the article stuck with me and it was this: “Only specialty channels are allowed to collect such fees, since they are considered discretionary purchases outside of basic cable.”

Hello? Since when has cable (even the basic kind) been anything but discretionary? Clean water and a reliable electricity supply: Those are utilities. Cable can be a great conduit of information and entertainment, but people can (and do) live just fine without it, thank you very much. (I am one of them: I cut the cable in the summer of 2007.)

Cable television has never been essential, although some would try to argue it is because it brings a world of programming into our homes. Sorry, that pales in comparison to the whole water and power thing. What is more, we have more alternative sources of news and entertainment than ever, including many mobile devices.

I would argue that if anything should be declared an essential communications utility today, it is the mobile phone. Cable TV will not help drivers who skid off the road this winter: Mobile phones could save their lives.

Yet in this country we have traditionally treated basic cable service like a utility and mobile phones like a discretionary purchase. That is something to think about.

Resolution number two: I will shut up and drive

Here is another thing to think about. Canada’s wireless industry has, for years, been trying to convince its customers to shut up and drive. (They are nicer about it, but that is what it comes down to.) There is a good reason for this.

Driving is a remarkably complex task that demands our full attention. (Need convincing? I recommend the book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)” by Tom Vanderbilt.)

The problem is not that drivers chat on mobile phones, it: is that we attempt to do any sort of multitasking behind the wheel of a car.

Changing the CD, eating, yelling at the kids to Cut That Out … it is all distracting, but mobile phones are highly visible, so they end up taking more heat than they deserve. Some jerk cuts us off and it is easier to blame the phone stuck to their ear than the sandwich sitting, out of sight, on their lap.

Canada’s wireless industry knows it is better to convince people to police their habits voluntarily than it is to wait until governments force us to change our ways. Unfortunately, the message is not being heard. As of this writing, Ontario is preparing to join the growing list of provinces that have outlawed talking on a hand-held phone while behind the wheel. (The proposed ban also covers texting, using a BlackBerry or an iPod, programming a GPS system, and other in-car technology.)

Such laws are difficult to enforce, and it is pathetic that society needs to resort to regulating common sense, but there it is.

That said, impending regulation is also creating opportunities for companies to solve the problem with technology. An example is Vancouver-based Aegis Mobility, which has developed DriveAssist. This application detects whether a mobile phone is travelling at vehicle speeds. It then mediates, blocking outgoing calls and telling incoming callers and texters that you’re driving and will respond later.

I have oversimplified DriveAssist for this column, but would encourage companies concerned about their employees abandoning common sense when in charge of a couple tons of potential mayhem to look at DriveAssist more closely:

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile, but not when driving) at 416-878-7730 or


Cable can be a great conduit of information and entertainment, but people can (and do) live just fine without it, thank you very much.