By Perry Hoffman
OTTAWA - Industry Canada has plans to deal with the mobile spectrum crunch. It involves allocation tweaks, technology innovation and some potential harmonization with the U.S.
Just before Industry Minister Christian Paradis spoke about spectrum on Tuesday afternoon, Helen McDonald, senior assistant deputy minister for spectrum, information technologies and telecommunications at the department told the IIC Canada conference that the 270 MHz mobile broadband spectrum currently available could double to nearly 550 MHz of bandwidth by 2014. Much of this could come from allocation changes in the 1700 MHz and 2100 MHz bands as well as a potential mobile designation in the 3500 MHz spectrum. “This, we believe, will be sufficient for commercial mobile services until at least 2015,” she said during her presentation.
McDonald noted though that freeing up spectrum is not the only way to increase the amount of bandwidth available for mobile broadband services. The private sector must do its part as well. “An increase in the supply of spectrum alone…will not be sufficient to meet this demand,” she said. “Service providers must expand network coverage and density by adding cell sites. They need to increase network efficiency by upgrading technology and network applications. Sharing of spectrum can also increase capacity. Dynamic spectrum sharing and carrier aggregation technologies should be pursued.”
But these new mobile broadband allocations won’t come lock, stock and barrel. The spectrum will be released bit-by-bit and this had panel chair Veena Rawat, VP and ambassador to the International Telecommunication Union for Research in Motion, wondering why there isn’t a longer-term plan to make more spectrum available.
McDonald agreed that a longer-term vision and greater predictability for mobile broadband spectrum in Canada is a desired outcome. She noted that this has been one of the key requests from a variety of industry associations, including the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.
To provide this certainty, the department will make public a spectrum release plan in a couple of months. The problem in trying to provide longer term certainty is it’s a bit unpredictable what will happen internationally or regional, McDonald added.
Ian Munro, an independent economist and former bureaucrat at the department, suggested that if Canada wanted to release spectrum more effectively and quicker, it should look at transferring spectrum licensing out of Industry Canada to an agency that is subject to less political influence.
While the wireless industry has seen remarkable change and rapid technological development over the past 20 years, “I think perhaps some of our processes or institutions haven’t quite kept pace and they have the potential to cause delays,” he argued.
Munro suggested that because spectrum licensing is controlled by Industry Canada, processes are subject to political influence. This could lead to delays because there is a certain amount of time required “to move through the internal hoops and hurdles” and it seems a body such as the CRTC or some other group “that’s a little more insulated from those kinds of pressures” could act more quickly on spectrum licensing related issues.
The economist acknowledged that it wouldn’t necessarily be easy or inexpensive to shift spectrum licensing to the CRTC. “I think taking politics out of the operational licensing decisions is a good thing,” Munro said. “As a bottom line, I would hope that the powers that be in government would spend a little time on introspection about whether it does make sense to change some of these or not.”
Munro also took a swipe at fixed licence terms, too. The idea that the government is going to pull the licence of a wireless carrier that is satisfying its customers and has millions of handsets in operation “is pretty far fetched” and “the only benefit of having these fixed terms is that it gives governments, ministers, senior bureaucrats, the warm, fuzzy feeling of the appearance of control.”
For Bryan Tramont, managing partner at the Washington DC-based Wilkinson Baker Knauer LLP law firm, spectrum regulators should look at creating abundance rather than managing scarcity. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has a goal of freeing up an additional 500 MHz of mobile broadband spectrum in 10 years, and it’s looking at both traditional and new ways to create this abundance.
One of the new innovations is dynamic sharing – this is the use of cognitive radio which enables a device to shift to open channels. This allows for more wireless communications to run in the same spectrum band.
The other is the incentive auctions. This is essentially giving broadcasters the right to sell their spectrum which can then be redeployed for mobile broadband services. According to Tramont, the FCC commission expects to issue a final order in 2013 and proceed with the auction sometime in 2014.
(Ed Note: When asked by Cartt.ca during a media scrum Tuesday afternoon about the potential to reclaim some spectrum from existing TV broadcasters, Paradis said everything is being considered: “On a broader basis, we are looking at having more spectrum,” he said in response to the question. “Options are on the table but we will have to make sure that we fully use our spectrum because we can not afford to have unused or inefficient spectrum.”)
“So the macro message from the United States is try to create abundance instead of manage scarcity and try and expand the number of tools in their toolbox to make spectrum available,” added Tramont, “so moving static sharing or forced relocation or granting incumbents rights, but adding these additional tools,” he said.