Quebec-Windsor car phone `highway' keeps Canadians talking

Canadians are taking to the car phone even faster than Americans. And the most densely populated strip in the country has the world's longest cellular phone corridor. ``We're growing about 20 percent faster than the American market,'' says Paul Preston of Cantel Inc., Canada's only national cellular telephone service. ``And we've caught up to the Americans in terms of per capita usage, even though they started in October of 1983 and we didn't start service until July of '85.''

The latest figures show 125,000 cellular phone service subscribers in Canada; that's up from 90,000 just last August. There are 1.2 million cellular subscribers in the United States, according to Herschel Shosteck & Associates Ltd., telecommunications economists in Silver Spring, Md. That gives the US a slight edge on a per capita basis.

The heaviest use of car phones by Canadians is in the densely populated areas of Ontario and Quebec. This area includes the corridor from Quebec City to Windsor, and at 800 miles it is the longest continuous cellular telephone link in the world.

Cantel spent more than $150 million (Canadian; US$121 million) to develop this ``talking highway''; there are more than 100 cells, or calling areas ranging up to several square miles in size, for Cantel alone in the corridor. Connections are passed from one cell to another so calls aren't interrupted.

Canada has one national cellular service, Cantel. But there is competition, since each area has a phone company that provides cellular service. For instance, in Quebec and Ontario, Cantel competes with the giant Bell Canada.

The other sections of Canada with cellular phone service include an area around Vancouver in British Columbia; the corridor from Calgary to Edmonton, Alberta's two biggest cities; Winnipeg, in Manitoba, and an area around Halifax on the Atlantic coast.

Canadian cellular telephones can be used in most places in the US. The caller just uses the phone as usual and the bill arrives later. It is called ``roaming,'' and the computer technology knows when a cellular phone from outside the area is using the service.

The same is true for most Americans driving in Canada, although some American cellular phone companies do not have reciprocal arrangements with Canadian car phone companies. Los Angeles Cellular is one company that does not have a roaming agreement with Canada.

It is also a question of technology. ``Roaming in the United States is not as sophisticated as it is in Canada,'' says telecommunications consultant Herschel Shosteck. ``That is because cellular phones were organized city by city in the United States and by region or nationally in Canada.'' Mr. Shosteck says most American car phones will be able to ``roam'' freely within six to 18 months.

The biggest users of car phones in Canada are people in the construction business; many of them also use portable computers and facsimile machines to turn their cars into remote offices. The next biggest users are salesmen, especially those in real estate and financial services, such as insurance and mutual fund sales.

For now, small businesses and professionals like these seem to be making the greatest use of car phones.

``The big companies are just starting to get these phones,'' says Paul Preston of Cantel. ``They usually take a few years to adopt a new technology.''

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