Canada’s 5G future

On December 17, the Government of Canada opened its consultation on the 3800 MHz spectrum band. The day before, Ceri Howes, Head of Regulatory for Opensignal published an article that I think merits highlighting, in light of the government’s stated object for the consultation “to ensure Canadians have access to high-quality wireless services.”

In the header for “Canada’s 5G future – the story so far”, Opensignal indicates the article “discusses some key considerations for Canada’s 5G future and highlights how policymakers and regulators can better make use of independent, globally-standardized data that reflects the actual experience of the consumers they serve.”

The article shows that Canada’s wireless carriers have consistently invested in new technologies, increasing spectrum efficiency and capacity, leading to Canada currently having some of the fastest 4G networks in the world, “despite Canada’s relatively low population density and the high capex and opex costs involved in deploying networks in rural and remote parts of a large country.”

However, the article observes that Canada is “unfortunately slipping behind” when it comes to 5G, and Opensignal suggests that spectrum policy is a factor.

The political and regulatory dynamics in Canada are complex, and spectrum management approaches also must consider factors such as a long, shared land border with the US. However, it is clear that various decisions around the timing, availability and pricing of critical 5G spectrum may be leading to constrained deployment.

Opensignal supported PWC Canada’s March 2021 report that looked at Canada’s connectivity needs in a post-COVID environment and looked at the implications for the roll-out of 5G. As I wrote at the time, the report identified six policy drivers to incentivize 5G deployment and broadband-enabled use cases, including spectrum timing and costs; network investment incentives; rural subsidies; and, funding for research and development.

Opensignal warns that Ottawa has a “pressing opportunity to prioritize the auction of additional mid-band and lower band spectrum”.

In Minister Champagne’s mandate letter, spectrum policy is only mentioned once: “Accelerate broadband delivery by implementing a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to require those that have purchased rights to build broadband to meet broadband access milestones or risk losing their spectrum rights.” I think much greater focus on spectrum policy is needed.

Opensignal says, “The speed with which new spectrum is allocated to carriers is also important if Canada is to see the full economic benefits of 5G and also if it is going to continue to rank highly on mobile network experience worldwide.”

As 2022 opens, 5G use cases in “agriculture, mining and manufacturing will play a central role in the transformation of Canada’s industrial policy and digital economy”.

Spectrum policy needs to take a higher profile on Canada’s political and economic agenda.

For the 3800 MHz consultation, comments are due February 15, with replies due March 7.

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