The consultative process works

This past August, Industry Canada launched its “Consultation on Policy Changes in the 3500 MHz Band (3475-3650 MHz) and a New Licensing Process in Rural Areas“. At the time, Industry Minister James Moore said:

Our government committed to putting unused spectrum licences to use, and today we are following through on that pledge. Today’s announcement also means that rural communities will benefit from enhanced access to high-speed Internet services. We will continue to put the interests of consumers first to ensure that Canadians have more choice and better services from their wireless service providers.

While there were good intentions to improve Internet service in rural communities through the proposed new rules, in fact, something went awry. There were sections in the consultation that appeared to be taking spectrum being used by rural ISPs and re-purposing the frequencies from fixed wireless to mobile. The potential impact would be to turn off high-speed fixed wireless internet service to large swaths of rural Canada.

Canada’s rural broadband service providers were taken by surprise. Xplornet, Canada’s largest rural internet service provider, was quick to point out a “fundamental disconnect” between the Minister’s statement and the proposal:

Under the proposal, Industry Canada would take away from rural Internet service providers, like Xplornet, the spectrum that is already in use today for the benefit of Canadians, and give it to the cell phone providers who are sitting on stock piles of un-deployed spectrum in these areas.

As the implications started to sink in, rural providers warned that hundreds of thousands of rural Canadians – rural voters – could have their internet disconnected, and could be forced back onto dial-up.

In the past, Minister Moore has communicated his desire for a “use it or lose it” policy when it comes to spectrum. Such a policy takes back spectrum that is not being deployed by the licensee. The current consultation however, contained provisions that meant rural internet service providers could effectively “use it AND lose it”.

How?

Because significant stretches of rural areas were being re-designated as “urban” under the proposed policy and a subsequent re-allocation of spectrum would mean rural ISPs that bought and paid for newly re-designated “urban” spectrum would lose it in order for mobile providers to have more spectrum for “future use”. Remember, this was spectrum that was originally designated as Fixed Wireless Access, specifically for uses like high-speed broadband, not mobile.

Comments in response to the consultation were due October 8. I have heard from a number of ISPs and a large number of rural communities and municipal associations in areas affected by the proposed policy, that they submitted comments urging Industry Canada not to take back the spectrum being used to deliver much needed fixed wireless broadband to thousands of rural constituents. Many of those communities most affected are in the heartlands of traditional federal Conservative support.

On October 9, Minister Moore issued a statement:

On August 19, 2014, Industry Canada launched a consultation asking Canadians for their views on how best to use the 3500 MHz band of spectrum, which is the spectrum band that represents the most affordable wireless high-speed Internet access for many rural Canadians.

Since then, I have received thoughtful feedback from local municipalities, Internet service providers and individual Canadians. Regrettably, some have falsely suggested that this consultation will somehow result in rural Canadians losing broadband services.

These suggestions are completely false. Under no circumstances will our government take spectrum licences away from any local Internet service provider that is providing Internet service to rural Canadians.

The decisions resulting from this consultation will ensure that the 3500 MHz spectrum band is deployed in the best interests of Canadian consumers, especially those living in rural areas.

Without this statement, the potential for rural Canadians to lose broadband was very real. The reclassification of many Tier 4 areas as “urban” (per Section 6 and Annex A of the consultation), despite a preponderance of rural Canadians in these areas, meant the spectrum being used for internet service was at risk of being taken away from that use. Rural Canadians might have been disconnected from the digital world.

The Minister’s statement provides a welcome clarification: “Under no circumstances will our government take spectrum licences away from any local Internet service provider that is providing Internet service to rural Canadians.”

It was a quick response, assuring communities that rural broadband subscribers will not be sacrificed to feed the insatiable hunger for mobile spectrum.

Most importantly, the Minister’s statement demonstrates that the consultation process works. Minister Moore clearly heard the comments from regions across Canada, and took the important step of acknowledging and responding positively to their concerns.

It was the right thing to do to reassure Canadians.

Still, the devil is in the details.

In the final policy and licensing framework, how will Industry Canada reconcile the Minister’s words from his October 9th statement, with the clear wording that was contained in the August consultation document?

Will Industry Canada re-write the proposals to grandfather spectrum holdings to ISPs that have deployed service already?

Broadband service for hundreds of thousands of rural Canadians is at stake. In responding to the consultation, the affected rural communities have shown that they can be mobilized over this issue.

How will the final policy and licensing framework reflect the Minister’s commitment to continuity of fixed wireless broadband service?


Update [October 30, 11:00 pm]: At long last, Industry Canada has posted the Comments that were submitted for the October 8 deadline. The Reply phase has been extended from November 5 to November 17 because of the delay in making the initial comments available. The Comments appear to overwhelmingly focus on the initial consultation plans to re-purpose spectrum from rural broadband to mobile, which led to the Minister’s “clarification.”

The submitted comments represent a remarkable outpouring from rural communities. More than 150 municipalities and county associations sent comments against the original proposal, many comments closing with a simple but effective message: “Please do not take away internet service from rural residents”.

2 thoughts on “The consultative process works”

  1. Good blog Mark. It will be interesting to see how the Minister fixes this. In order to make the proposals in the consultation document fit his press release rhetoric, he’ll essentially have to make the consultation do a 180 on rural spectrum, or find a boat-load of other spectrum to give the ISPs. Did the Minister read the consultation document before it got released? One wonders…

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