First Impressions of Rogers GSM

Last Updated: 14-Aug-2001

I have just recently finished a 4-day trial of the Rogers GSM system here in the GTA. I was loaned an Ericsson R520m, but I really only needed the SIM. I still had my venerable Nokia 6190, which had been unlocked right from the day I bought it in early March of 1998.

In fact, the 6190 proved to have better RF characteristics the R520m, which did come as a bit of a shock to me. Even though Iím on record as stating that the R520m has inferior RF performance to the 7190, I hadnít really thought it would be inferior to the 6190.

Using the 6190, I was able to make direct comparisons of Rogers GSM and Microcell Connexions using the same phone. It also allowed me to use my earbud, which was a huge safety advantage when I was driving around listening to the network. Unfortunately, the person who loaned me the Ericsson phone did not have a headset for it.

What follows is my impression of the Rogers GSM network in its current state. However, two obvious limitations spring immediately to mind. First, the network I tested was virtually unused, meaning that very few other users were online. I know from watching problems crop up on the early Microcell Connexions network in Toronto what could happen when system usage rises. Secondly, the Rogers engineers will no doubt be fine-tuning the network before its public launch, which could even be as late as January Iím told.

Even before I got my hands on this loaner SIM card, Iíd been monitoring the deployment of the GSM network using a Mitsubishi G310. Due to a bug in its firmware, the G310 would remain glued to the Rogers signal once it found it. That, and the Field Test Mode in the phone, made it easy for me watch the signal levels on Rogers. Iíd been a bit concerned about weak areas around the city, so I took Rogers through those areas first. My suspicions were correct, and Rogers has severe signal degradation problems in many parts of the city.

The problems were worse once I went outside of the GTA, where Rogers is out-gunned 3:1 in terms of site locations by Microcell Connexions (in areas where Microcell has coverage). I didnít test the network in all the places Iíd previously seen weak signals on the G310. However, based on the behavior of their network in areas that I did test, it wasnít hard to extrapolate.

Rogers has not yet implemented Frequency Hopping inside the GTA, and it showed. Audio dropouts in places where you wouldnít really expect them were far more common than Iíd become accustomed to on Microcell Connexions. However, to be fair, Microcell Connexions has yet to implement Frequency Hopping beyond the GTA, so these problems exist on their network too in other parts of the province.

Indoor coverage wasnít bad, but in the areas I went, it never seemed to be quite as good as Microcell Connexions. Before we continue with this discussion however, I should point out a couple of factors that can influence indoor coverage.

First is the proximity of the nearest site, which in my case always seemed to favor Microcell Connexions. This can have a huge influence on whether you get or donít get indoor signals. Your own daily travels may take you places where the opposite is true, in which case you might find Rogers to be better.

Secondly, Rogers is building a 1900 MHz network atop a system designed primarily for 800 MHz. While they did indeed have 1900 MHz IS-136 prior the conversion, they never had to worry about 100% coverage from it, since they could always hand you off to an 800 MHz channel (and often did).

It was just unfortunate that many of the poor indoor areas coincided with places that I happened to frequent. At my parentsí home off of Credit Woodlands in Mississauga for example, the signals upstairs were dangerously low, and I experienced audio break up. Those signals were non-existent in the basement. However, Rogers has sites that seem close enough to provide coverage better than that. Microcell Connexions works great there.

Now before you get to thinking that this is a hugely negative review of the Rogers GSM system, let me point out that the above is really the only negative things I have to say about them. In most other respects, they either match Microcell Connexions, or (in some cases) they exceed them.

I'm happy to report that the god-awful echo canceller that Rogers analog and IS-136 customers have been putting up with all these years does not plague their GSM system. The echo canceller was near-perfect, and just as good as the one deployed by Microcell Connexions. I had serious concerns about this issue, since it would have been very easy for Rogers to use the same echo cancellers on all of their networks.

Another area where they are definitely better is during low volume situations. Many people have noticed (and commented upon) the strange crickling sounds that you hear in the background (on Microcell Connexions) when speaking to someone with a soft voice, and when odd background noises (such as computer fans) are present. This is probably caused by a noise gate that Microcell Connexions has set too high. I didnít hear this phenomenon on Rogers.

Somehow, handoffs on Rogers are less obtrusive than on Microcell Connexions. The difference isnít all that great, but itís enough to be heard. That made me think of the times people out west have told me that they donít really notice handoffs on the Microcell Connexions network there. This tends to indicate that something is amiss with the Ericsson equipment Microcell uses out east (but doesnít seem to affect the Ericsson equipment used by Rogers).

The handoff schedule used by Rogers is also a little less ďtrigger happyĒ in places, and so you remain on a site a bit longer than with Microcell Connexions. This proved to be both a blessing and a curse. While it did reduce the number of handoffs heard while traveling through heavily sited urban areas, it also resulted in greater periods of audio damage prior to a handoff needed to rescue the connection.

Sound quality was on par with Microcell Connexions, and as expected, I mostly couldnít tell which network I was actually listening to. All the other advantages of GSM, such as flexible control of call forwarding, were there and accounted for, so any Microcell Connexions user would feel right at home.

By the time Rogers launches GSM officially, the extent of their coverage will be quite impressive, though the quality of much of that coverage is yet to be seen, as their signals are already paper-thin in places, and thatís with 800 MHz. A system operating purely on 1900 MHz is going to have a hell of a time under those circumstances.

My experiences with Rogers proved that we shouldnít be getting too excited about it just yet, but it does show that theyíve done a pretty good job of getting it up and running in a short space of time. Things will hopefully improve on all fronts, and in time, Rogers might have a GSM system thatís worthy of calling GREAT. For now, it has its share of problems, and jumping ship from Microcell Connexions when Rogers launches might not be a good idea (unless you have serious problems with Microcell in the areas that you live and work).

I certainly plan to check them out again when the system is officially launched. There is certainly enough potential here that they might become a serious contender for my GSM business (such as it is). Weíll have to wait and see.

P.S. The service I borrowed did have active GPRS. I wasnít able to test it on my computer, since I had endless problems with IR port on the laptop. However, I was able to try a WAP connection via GPRS. Connection times were virtually instantaneous (of course), but the overall response speed while surfing the net seemed almost slower than what I was used to on Microcell Connexions. This might just be a setup issue that will be dealt with before the launch. Best of all however, I could receive phones call while I was surfing, which canít be said of circuit-switched connections.

P.P.S. Just because I was loaned a SIM doesnít mean that Iím privy to any information concerning launch dates, pricing plans, or available phones. Iím just as much in the dark as the rest of you.