5G: creating opportunities at the speed of thought

In a recent interview, Rogers CEO Joe Natale describes life in the pandemic as “obviously the worst of times, but it’s also the best of times, in terms of unleashing imagination and reinvention,” projecting an optimistic outlook for the “revolution going on in wireless and Internet and 5G, which will change the country and change the world.” He forecasts 5G networks creating opportunities and capabilities “at the speed of thought.”

In a Public Policy Forum (PPF) podcast, PPF CEO Edward Greenspon and Joe Natale discuss the impact of billions of dollars of annual investment by Canada’s communications carrier in digital infrastructure and take a look at broader economic opportunities arising from continued investment in Canada’s digital infrastructure, with networks that are among the world’s best.

As PPF writes about its podcast, Natale “joins Policy Speaking to share his vision for the future of mobile tech, bridging the digital divide, and how industry can partner with government to bring Canada together as a nation.”

The conversation covers a wide range of topics including some important messages that often seem to be forgotten by many engaging in digital policy discussions at all levels of government.

[Joe Natale] In our industry, 70 percent of our network efforts are civil engineering efforts. The technology is 30 percent of the endeavor, but a lot of it is boots on the ground with shovels, getting rights of way from hydro companies, getting attachment rights to go under the streets, through ducts and rights of way that exist in every municipality.

In every municipality, for every project, is a bit of a puzzle because it requires multilateral negotiation with all the different players that are out there. And, you know, sometimes you just get frustrated to a point where you say, “You know what, it’s too hard in this particular area, or municipality, or this part of Canada. Let’s just go on the next one.”

The podcast also spoke of the challenges associated with multiple levels of (and sometimes confusing) regulations. For example, two identical cedar poles, each carrying telephone and electric wires, are regulated differently, depending on the entity that owns the pole. Attachment to a pole owned by a phone company is regulated by the CRTC; if the same pole is owned by an electric company, it is provincially regulated.

Although courts have repeatedly confirmed the supremacy of federal jurisdiction over telecommunications undertakings, municipal governments and local land use authorities have an ability to accelerate or inhibit investment decisions by the proponents of digital infrastructure investments, whether it is for siting new wireless towers or using municipal roadways. At all levels of government, policies and regulations can shift the timing or even the overall project economics for new services being made available to a community. The timing of broadband delivery can be impacted by a single bureaucrat’s pen stroke.

How many investments in rural broadband have been delayed or cancelled due to slow-moving municipal permit processes?

The discussion included examining conditions that create a favourable climate for investment.

[Edward Greenspon] If there was one issue you wanted to focus on, one message you wanted to impart, what would that be?

[Joe Natale] Consistency. Stability in the regulatory environment and therefore the partnership with government. We’re public companies, a number of us in this industry, with big balance sheets because we have to make these multibillion dollar investments every year.

We go to the capital markets across the globe to encourage investors to put their faith in us, from all kinds of countries of places. And, the number one question invariably that we start talking about is, “what will the regulatory environment look like in Canada in the years ahead?” And, “can we rely on that partnership with government? Can it be consistent and somewhat predictable? Because it’s hard for us to give you money and invest in the future if we’re not sure with what that looks like from a certain stability point of view.”

And so, that partnership needs to be long lasting, if we’re making investments that have 10, 15, 20 year paybacks

Natale speaks of a promise of 5G that arises from its speeds, bandwidth and low latency, capabilities that will enable “engineers and innovators to dream up things that were never before possible.” He says the promise of 5G is not a competition among companies, but rather a competition between nations. “It goes back to nation building. Canada has the opportunity to be first and be the greatest. As it relates to 5G. And that will that will stimulate innovation. That will create jobs, that will create an environment that will help Canada seize the future.”

He sets out a positive vision for the future: Opportunities at the speed of thought.

Which countries will create policy and regulatory environments that create a favourable environment for investment? What steps is Canada prepared to take to create an environment to “seize the future”?

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