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Pushing the envelope (July 01, 2005)

As the wireless industry celebrates a milestone, Industry Canada minister David Emerson seeks more and more technical advances.

July 1, 2005  

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In a regulated industry such as wireless, when the federal minister speaks, it makes good sense to listen. Such was the case at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa on June 8 when Industry Canada minister David Emerson delivered the keynote address at a conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of commercial mobile telephony services in Canada.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) organized the daylong celebration so it is not surprising that much backslapping took place. Everyone including the minister agreed the past 20 years have been a huge success.

Calling mobile telephony a “fundamental revolution,” Emerson applauded the important role of wireless in making Canadian business more competitive and made astute observations about how these technologies have transformed our society over the past two decades.

But he also warned there is still much more that can be done. “We have to be the most competitive (of the major industrial economies),” he said, adding that wireless technology can play a major role in making that happen.

“We can’t just glide along with incremental improvements … we need quantum leaps in technology if we’re going to become the competitive threat in the world economy that we have to be.”

Supply chain advances

Emerson suggested two areas where wireless can contribute. First, there is supply chain management. There is no question that wireless, a broad umbrella that includes terrestrial and satellite-based asset tracking and RFID, helps companies manage their people and resources, and connect with suppliers and customers.

“How would we manage today’s international supply chains without the convenience of wireless telephony?” he asked. “Competitiveness requires fast response. It requires easy access to decision makers.”

Second, there is wireless technology’s ability to connect Canada’s rural and remote areas via high speed Internet in a cost-effective way, enabling everyone to participate in the global economy.

On this point, the minister pulled no punches: “We need to be in the forefront of using wireless to build competitiveness. We need you to be the pioneers in creating new products and applications. We need to build products that are unique, transformative, and have such dramatic impact that people must have them, and will willingly pay handsomely for them.”

Maybe it is just me, but I am guessing Emerson was not talking about ring tones, celebrity voicemail, gaming, or Canadian Idol voting via SMS. These types of applications are popular with consumers — and since they are also revenue generators for the carriers, we should expect to see many more just like them from the wireless companies.

That is not to say that these are “bad” applications. They are making money for the industry, so bring ’em on. But they are not the compelling services that businesses need to enhance their competitiveness. In fact, as more of these applications are produced, up to and including interactive radio and television to the handset, the killer application for corporations may be the one that allows them to turn off or block entertainment services on employees’ mobile phones.

“We’ve come a very long way in just two decades since wireless telephony was first introduced in Canada,” said Emerson. “There is no doubt it has been a revolutionary technology, but I believe the revolution has just begun.

“Let’s work together and get the job done. In our business, there are no second chances.”

In his quest to see new advances happen quickly, Emerson established two important advisory bodies this year, and both include prominent wireless industry veterans:

* The Task Force on Commercialization counts Research in Motion co-CEO Mike Lazaridis among its members. It will advise the minister on how best to use wireless and other technologies to improve products and services and disseminate technology through the economy.

* Former Microcell Telecom CEO Andr Tremblay is on the three-member Telecommunications Policy Review Panel, which will help shape the future of Canada’s telecom regulatory environment.

Information on both can be found on Industry Canada’s web site: These are ideal opportunities for businesses to tell the government what they need from wireless and other technologies. It would be a shame to waste them.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or