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Alek Krstajic, president and chief executive officer of Public Mobile Inc. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Alek Krstajic, president and chief executive officer of Public Mobile Inc. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Public Mobile plagued by wireless dead zones Add to ...

Alek Krstajic is learning a hard lesson about the perils of criticizing the competition.

Before the president and chief executive officer of Public Mobile Inc. launched his company's cellphone service in May, the industry veteran took a backhanded swipe at rival Wind Mobile's well-publicized wireless network difficulties. "You're always going to have a dead spot here or there," he told reporters. "The point was not to have a Swiss cheese network."

Now, with its network in Montreal plagued by multiple dead zones where its cellphones don't work, Public Mobile is running into the same problem as Wind, which rushed to market after regulatory approval and encountered network coverage issues.

In postings on its company blog, Public Mobile has admitted that several key areas in Montreal are without service and the company is refunding phone purchases and offering free service until the problems are resolved. Although the stumble is unlikely to do irreparable harm to Public Mobile, it is yet another warning to companies that have yet to launch about the technical problems that can occur when trying to bring a new network into service.

The blog post announcing the launch in Montreal was quickly flooded by negative comments about how the phones didn't work, even inside the discount wireless provider's stores, and how even customers who could place a call to Public's customer service helpline - from a land line - couldn't reach an agent.

Wireless launches, of course, are rarely accomplished without glitches. In dense urban areas, even large providers have spots where network coverage becomes choppy: Call centre agents call up coverage maps even when they receive calls from Canada's biggest cities.



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Brian O'Shaughnessy, Public Mobile's chief technology officer, said the problems arose with last minute delays as the company rushed to install rooftop cell sites across Montreal. In some cases, the only fix now required is that technicians tweak the equipment; in other cases, more rooftop sites are required, he said.

"There's a few spots that are a little on the rough side and just short on coverage, in terms of sites being built," said Mr. O'Shaughnessy, who helped launch Bell's wireless network in 1985. "The unfortunate part is that those spots are pretty important spots for our customer base."

Some of the urban areas that will see continued cell site construction throughout July are Côtes-des-Neiges, Verdun, and Côte-Vertu, among others.

For a company selling low-cost service, stumbling at launch is not a huge problem, said Montreal-based Desjardins Securities analyst Maher Yaghi. "When they get their network ready, I think people will come back," he said. "It's the cheapest product on the market."

But for those companies planning a wireless launch to complement existing cable and Internet offerings, such as Quebecor Inc.'s Vidéotron Ltée and Shaw Communications Inc., there is a much greater need to ensure a launch is executed flawlessly. If the service is bad, lucrative customers that "bundle" and pay for multiple telecom services together may become frustrated and consider switching to rival providers.

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