700 MHz: Solomon cuts the baby

In a strange choice of settings, Industry Minister Christian Paradis delivered the long overdue 700 MHz spectrum announcement. The details of the Policy Framework can be found here.

There will be lots of coverage of the highlights of the announcement (Globe and Mail, National Post) – I’ll try to touch on points that aren’t receiving as much play.

Competitive measures

New entrants and Open Media had been calling for spectrum to be set aside, restricting Rogers, Bell and TELUS from competing for the new frequencies. The major carriers wanted an open auction. In a typical governmental compromise, Solomon went ahead and cut the baby in half.


Excuse a little bit of technical detail here. The 700 MHz band consists of blocks:

  • Paired blocks (6+6 MHz each): A, B and C;
  • Paired blocks (5+5 MHz each): C1 and C2;
  • Unpaired blocks (6 MHz each): D and E.

As Industry Canada describes, the best blocks are the ones in use already by AT&T and Verizon in the US:

Two non-interoperable equipment ecosystems have emerged in the United States, which correspond to the specific 700 MHz spectrum holdings of AT&T (blocks B and C) and Verizon (blocks C1 and C2). In the short to medium term, it is expected that most of the available equipment will operate either on blocks B and C and be compatible with AT&T equipment ecosystem, or on blocks C1, C2 and be compatible with the Verizon equipment ecosystem.

In fact, the Verizon blocks are less desirable, since Verizon’s gear is designed to interoperate with CDMA, not the GSM/HSPA ecosystem. CDMA has been largely abandoned by Canadian carriers. The large providers are restricted to bidding on only 1 paired block of prime 700 MHz spectrum, in order to leave at least one block available for new entrants.

It is a great compromise in theory, except it virtually guarantees that Canadians will not have access to the fastest mobile speeds. While LTE can operate on 10MHz of spectrum, it can operate that much better on 20MHz. In other words, Solomon went ahead and cut the baby.

Another complication comes up in the middle of the country where there will be four incumbents bidding: SaskTel and MTS have been recognized to be incumbents. Long time readers will recall that this was a problem in the last auction. So, there is a high probability that new entrants will be shut out of acquiring a national network since there will be a large hole in the midwest portion of the country.

Rural build out

The announcement was held in Russell Ontario, a community that has attracted rural broadband subsidies in the past. Perhaps the Minister was looking to emphasize the rural benefits to be derived from Canada’s new spectrum policy. After all, a number of carriers had told the government that 700 MHz was the key to extending broadband to rural markets.

The Minister announced

The measures I am outlining today will ensure the timely availability of world-class wireless services at low prices for Canadian families, including those in rural areas.

But look at the details:

The government will require companies having access to two or more blocks of paired spectrum in the 700 MHz band, through auction licences or through spectrum sharing, to cover 90 percent of the population of their current high-speed population coverage within five years and 97 percent within seven years of licensing.

In other words:

  • The rural build won’t apply to all winners of 700 MHz spectrum, just those acquiring 2 or more blocks;
  • If the rural build requirement applies, it doesn’t require extending the networks beyond the reach of today’s HSPA footprint – in fact it only applies to 97% of the current footprint after 7 years.

This strikes me as not being a particularly aggressive requirement.

Foreign ownership

There has been a fair bit of confusion about which companies are covered by the foreign investment liberalization announced.

The government will amend the Telecommunications Act to exempt telecommunications companies with less than 10 percent of total telecommunications Canadian market revenue from foreign investment restrictions in that Act. This change will promote competition by improving access to capital. In order to encourage long-term investment in Canada’s telecommunications industry, companies that are successful in growing their market shares in excess of 10 percent of total Canadian telecommunications market revenues other than by way of merger or acquisitions will continue to be exempt from the restrictions. Restrictions on foreign ownership under the Broadcasting Act would remain for all companies with broadcasting distribution activities. As is the case with any direct foreign investment, the provisions of the Investment Canada Act will continue to apply.

Let’s parse this. According to the CRTC’s Communication Monitoring Report, total revenues in 2010 were $41.7B. So, companies with less than $4.2B in revenues pass the first gate. Only the Telecom Act is being modified, so carriers with broadcast distribution undertakings (BDUs) will not benefit from the announcement. Note that BDUs aren’t radio or TV stations; BDUs are telecommunications carriers that deliver TV programming. By virtue of delivering IPTV, most local phone companies became licensed as BDUs.

There are only three companies that exceed the 10% threshold: Bell, Rogers and TELUS. All three are BDUs, so it is interesting that the government chose to set a market share metric at all. Further, the Minister reminded us that the Investment Canada Act provisions remain in place, which require an application for review if the investment exceeds $330M. In other words, Industry Canada will still have to review and make a determination for as low a threshold as less than 1% of the telecom market.

the purposes of this Act are to provide for the review of significant investments in Canada by non-Canadians in a manner that encourages investment, economic growth and employment opportunities in Canada and to provide for the review of investments in Canada by non-Canadians that could be injurious to national security.

As such, why couldn’t liberalization be offered to all carriers? Bell, Rogers and TELUS would still have needed to restructure their BDU businesses and be subject to Investment Canada review.

Public Safety

Among the most overlooked aspects of the announcement was the designation of 10 MHz of spectrum for public safety users, with the strong possibility of a further 10 MHz of spectrum to be added.

B2-1: The bands 763-768 MHz and 793-798 MHz (PSBB block) are designated for public safety broadband use. Consequently, these bands will not be part of the 700 MHz auction.

B2-2: A decision on the use of the bands 758-763 MHz and 788-793 MHz (the D block in the Upper 700 MHz band) will be made following a separate consultation.

99. Industry Canada will initiate a further consultation on the technical, operational and licensing issues related to the spectrum designated for public safety broadband use in the 700 MHz band.

Who will actually own and operate the networks that make use of this spectrum? It is 20 MHz of spectrum designated for use by agencies that do not necessarily have the financial means to implement a national network. This could be a really interesting opportunity for a company to emerge to build and operate the network to deliver public safety broadband services.

It is a lot of spectrum to be designated for a limited group. Could other users be loaded onto the network during off-peak periods? Would this help enhance the business case for development of a device ecosystem?

Other observations

The foreign investment liberalization will ease the corporate gymnastics that many companies have had to undertake to comply with the whims of less-than-transparent review processes. A number of companies were created with the sole purpose of laundering foreign ownership through Canadian partners in order to own spectrum or become a CLEC. Watch for these structures to be simplified in the coming months.

In the Minister’s remarks, we heard “The measures I am outlining today will ensure the timely availability of world-class wireless services at low prices for Canadian families, including those in rural areas.” The 700 MHz auction is scheduled for the first half of 2013, followed by the auction of the 2500 MHz spectrum within the following year. Canada should be moving forward more aggressively to get this spectrum deployed, encouraging more rapid investment in our national digital infrastructure.

The spectrum announcement indicates follow-up processes and consultations leading up to the auction. The 2012 Canadian Telecom Summit, June 4-6 in Toronto, will be the place to review these issues with a special panel on June 6 examining spectrum. Watch for further announcements regarding our program in the coming days.

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6 thoughts on “700 MHz: Solomon cuts the baby”

  1. Mark: Excellent summary, as usual, of what the announcement really is all about. I really wish there was some way that the government would take work with business customers and consumers to get input and feedback, and not just industry and the government regulators? Maybe they should try to live a day in the life of business customers in urban and rural areas across Canada to really see what could and is the impact of having realistic high speed services available to us as business customers. They could come and spend a day at Fox Hollow/Mount Albert and see what we do with our 4 different high speed services coming in here and our various VoIP, UC and video apps we use as a distribute/mobile firm!

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  4. Mark – your comment on the ”for public safety use” allocation is interesting – you first state “Who will actually own and operate” and then highlight the emerging opportunity for a company to “build and operate the network” to deliver public safety broadband services. Yes to great business opportunities to BUILD and operate BUT … OWN and operate?
    ABSOLUTELY not! Lets be clear – and your opinion on this would be appreciated – we must ensure ownership of “for ps use” spectrum remains firmly under the full control of public safety agencies to provide the assurance first responders (and the Canadian public they serve in times of life-threatening need) deserve and must have in terms of control of how this precious piece of spectrum will be managed. We welcome companies stepping up to help us build and operate … but “public safety use” must mean “public safety OWNS”!!

  5. I think that ownership of the network equipment is less important than a careful specification of the service that is to be delivered. I haven’t seen many public safety agencies with a spare billion or more to build out a national network. On the other hand, there are lots of private sector companies used to taking that kind of risk and building on a service bureau basis.

    Just a few early thoughts on the matter.

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