When the first wireless phone call was made on the MTS network 25 years ago, people would have laughed at you if you told them you would someday be able to watch the hockey game on your phone.
For one thing, the two-and-a-half-pound brick of a phone didn't have a screen. The other thing, at $4,000 per phone, was there weren't enough around to justify the technological innovation now swarming all over the mobile sector.
When the novelty technology was introduced in Manitoba 25 years ago (Motorola made the first wireless phone call in New York City 15 years before), there were only two cellphone towers here and ridiculously little coverage. Two years later, MTS had a whopping 25,000 subscribers for the sexy new technology.
Fast-forward from the late '80s and wireless is now the most important segment of MTS's business, with just shy of 500,000 wireless subscribers. It represents 37 per cent of its total revenue, with long-distance charges at about eight per cent and falling.
And the dynamic around the wireless phenomenon continues to change.
It's not about talking on the phone anymore. There's plenty of other things we use our smartphones for. Voice telephony on wireless is so last-century.
"It has really become a device that people do things on and actually talk very little on," said MTS president Kelvin Shepherd. "There's lots of email, a lot of video... communication that is not your traditional phone conversation."
It would have been hard to imagine that old Motorola brick-phone would be the precursor of the multi-dimensional smartphone of today that most of us use for a combination of camera/email/mobile computer/music-player/telephone.
MTS officials say smartphone applications such as making retail payments by tapping it at the point-of-sale receiver is around the corner.
When former Winnipeg mayor Bill Norrie made that first wireless call 25 years ago, the two cellphone towers in the province could handle just 15 calls at a time. Now wireless is the most lucrative piece of every telco's business.
In Manitoba alone, MTS's infrastructure has grown from the two towers -- one on a Portage and Main highrise, the other in West St. Paul -- to 200, covering 97 per cent of the province's population. There are about a million calls and texts per day bouncing through the busy system.
Telcos such as MTS are doing everything they can to make their network even more robust, because wireless-data usage is the fastest-growing piece of their business.
At MTS, wireless-data revenue is growing at about 30 per cent a year compared to a 9.5 per cent decline in long-distance revenue and a 3.9 per cent decline in revenue from local-access service. Even the nine per cent growth in revenue from high-speed Internet service is mild in comparison.
That's why the company continues to invest in expanding its wireless network.
MTS announced this week it would be expanding its 4G-LTE network, currently available in Winnipeg and Brandon only, to six more communities -- Steinbach, Selkirk, Portage la Prairie, Ste. Anne, Grand Beach and Victoria Beach.
The 4G-LTE network allows more data to be carried within the same amount of radio spectrum.
In addition to the six communities that will be added this year to the higher-capacity 4G-LTE network, the company plans further expansion in 2014.