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What Tim Hortons and the TTC reveal about Canada’s mobile future

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It’s crazy enough navigating the subway station at Yonge and Bloor St. in Toronto without having to get around a large upright banner that’s bigger than most human beings and a pair of obviously bored volunteers. Leave it to the TTC to decide that the best way to make people aware of its new wireless service is to use the face-to-face approach.

I shouldn’t complain, I guess. The TTC Connect program, which will continue to roll out to other stops over the next few years, followed close on the news that Tim Hortons will be allowing customers to pay for their Double-Doubles with their mobile phones. If mobile computing is extending into these uncharted territories, Canada must be doing something right. Right?

When you consider that even airplanes are now beginning to offer Wi-Fi on flights, there can’t be too many places left where mobility hasn’t made headway. I asked Steve Van Binsbergen, Vice President of Business Segment at Rogers, where he thought the gaps were.

“It’s anywhere where there’s concentrations of population,” he said. “The other aspect may be more rural or regional. All the telcos, all the cellular providers have obviously concentrated on building out where the majority of the cusotmers are, but as time goes on we continue to build out our network.”

Northern Alberta, for instance, where so many people are moving to work in the oil and gas industry, could become a critical place for mobility in 2014 and beyond, he said. This is why the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction is so important -- the spectrum up for grabs is the kind that will work well in these kinds of underserved areas.

As that happens, though, I think we need to consider the complete journey that mobile computing takes, and not simply lump all these sorts of developments as though they are one in the same. This is the way the trajectory tends to go: It starts with pure access, allowing devices to connect in places that were otherwise cut off. That’s where the TTC is starting. The next stage is transactions, which is where Tim Hortons (which was also late offering Wi-Fi) is playing catch-up to Starbucks and others. The ultimate stage, perhaps, is mobile intelligence, where the providers of wireless access work together to use the data they collect from customers to offer more personalized, and hopefully better, services. This is where many kinds of organizations across Canada, particularly the government, continue to fall short.

Maybe as we mull Canada’s final mobile frontier -- rural areas -- the industry could aim higher than mere access, and think through use-case scenarios for consumers that will not only make wireless service useful but vital. We should want more for rural Canada than just the ability to connect or make payments. It’s great that people in Toronto can start checking e-mail on their commute or grab a coffee with their smartphone, but as we move closer to 2014, I urge Canada’s wireless industry to ask itself: How much farther could this technology go?

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