Monday, November 9, 2009

Bell Mobility's HSPA network brings Internet Radio to the next level

This week marked a turning point for Internet radio - at least in Canada - with the launch of Bell Mobility's HSPA wireless network and the Bell Mobility iPhone. What does this have to do with Internet Radio you ask? In short, everything: As I have repeatedly stated in the past, the biggest obstacle preventing Internet Radio from becoming the de facto radio medium can be summed up by this simple fact: Until people can listen to high quality Internet radio streams uninterrupted in their car when commuting, it will continue to play second fiddle to terrestrial and satellite radio.

Reliability is what's been missing up... until now.

Radio geeks like myself all know that for some time you have been able to listen to Internet radio in your car, even before 3g networks were rolled out. True enough, it has been possible (for at least 5 years now) to listen to Internet radio on the go. But until the 3g networks were launched, you had to listen to a low AM quality stream. Then when the 3g networks were launched it did become possible to listen at high quality - indistinguishable from a CD in sound quality - but with the major caveat that streams tended to drop frequently enough to make the listening experience a bit frustrating, some days worse than others. I myself used to take the bus to work and enjoyed listening to Internet radio, but I always found it annoying when the stream would drop. Some days I would be constantly hitting the reconnect button before giving up and switching back to my iPod music library.

The reason for this is simple: while the Rogers/Fido 3G network was technically capable of supporting high quality streams, it was basically "redlining" the minimum required bandwidth. It's a bit like driving a moped on the freeway: Yes you might legally be able to hit the lower speed limit, but you don't have much room to maneuver if you're being tailgated by bus.

The remedy for this problem is obvious to any iPhone user: Get the cellular network to work as fast as a WiFi hotspot, which almost never drops streams. Listening to Internet radio through WiFi is fantastic, but the second I switch to Rogers/Fido 3G reliability becomes an issue due to the bandwidth requirements.

However, from a carriers perspective there is no easy fix as this requires a tremendous investment to upgrade the network. Bell Mobility has done just this: Upgraded to a shiny new HSPA network that is orders of magnitude faster than the Rogers/Fido network. Fortunately, Bell has also managed to strike a deal with Apple to sell the iPhone which means they've got all bases covered.

Admittedly, as a Rogers customer I can't help but feel that Bell's success leaves me feeling a little envious. Such is life.

So how do I know so much about Bell's new network if I'm a Rogers customer? Full disclosure: I have worked with Bell in the past as an external contractor, and still maintain a professional relationship with the company. As a kind gesture they presented me some preliminary results indicating quite convincingly that Bell's network is orders of magnitude faster than Rogers.

I asked if someone could perform the ultimate Internet radio litmus test which is to tune into a high quality Internet radio station and drive around the city to see how frequently the Internet radio stream was being dropped: Bell vs. Rogers/Fido. While they didn't have time to put together a formal study, they did do some ad hoc tests, and shared the results with me. Apparently the Rogers network dropped the stream "several times" whereas the same stream (Radio Nigel at 128 kbps through QuickTime) never dropped on the Bell network, during a 45 minute driving excursion through various parts of the Greater Toronto Area.

If these claims are true (and I have no reason to doubt these guys), this would indicate Bell has crossed a significant threshold for Internet radio listeners. From what it appears, users on the Bell HSPA network should be able to listen to Internet radio uninterrupted whenever they get into their car and drive to and from work. Not only is this more enjoyable - it's safer! The less I'm likely to fiddle with my iPhone to reconnect to streams, the less likely I am to be distracted and get into an accident. I am optimistic that these claims will be proven out through more testing, not to mention customer testimonials.

That said, I encourage my readers to find out for themselves.

Going ahead, I have asked Bell if they could provide controlled tests to better quantify:
1. How reliable is streaming 128 kbps streams through the iPhone 3G and 3Gs, respectively?
2. How long on average does it take to connect to a 128 kbps when tuning in on the iPhone 3G and 3Gs, respectively?

It's still the first week of their launch, but from what I've seen I'm beginning to believe that the HSPA network has upped the ante for Internet radio, and quite possibly laid the infrastructure making it possible to lift Internet radio out of the realm of geeks, and truly democratize the medium.

Exciting times! Stay TUN3D...