Today, the government will announce who will bid on the upcoming spectrum auction in January 2014. The CMG has urged the government to focus on what Canadians need from their airwaves, for example by reserving some spectrum in the 700 MHz band (the one to be auctioned) for public, community and educational use. Also of interest is the proposal this summer from Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (now merged in the new union, Unifor) that the government set up a fourth provider, a publicly-owned carrier in the interest of Canadians . These ideas are worth exploring if the goals of enhanced competition and access for Canadians who rely on these public airwaves are to be achieved.
We spoke with Gregory Taylor, Principal Investigator, Canadian Spectrum Policy Research at the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management, Ryerson University for some insight into these issues.
How important is reserving spectrum for non-commercial actors and what are the challenges of doing so?
Parts of the spectrum have always been reserved for non-commercial use. There are currently areas reserved for Science, Industrial and Medical usage, as well as Public Safety and Military, to name a few non-commercial actors. Good spectrum regulation requires long-term vision and a sense of the greater public interest. There is a good recent example in the United States where The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2012) in its Report to the President entitled “Realizing the Full Potential of Government-Held Spectrum to Spur Economic Growth” has called for “1,000 MHz of Federal spectrum in which to implement the new architecture and thereby create the first shared-use spectrum superhighways. The essential element of this new Federal spectrum architecture is that the norm for spectrum use should be sharing, not exclusivity.”
This is bold, long-term thinking. If this report is taken seriously it would upend much of the current regulatory regime in the United States and have repercussions worldwide. There is no equivalent of this proposal in Canada.
Do we know of examples and countries where new and inventive spectrum development has been done successfully?
An example of a government that was willing to take a chance on spectrum development is in the U.S. where in the 1980s, the Federal Communication Commission set aside spectrum for unlicensed, undetermined use. The policy was built into the technology: devices approved for this spectrum would have short ranges. That eventually became used for garage door openers, baby monitors, and most importantly, wifi. It is important to note the initial leap of faith in setting aside the frequencies happened long before wifi was developed. We must allow room for experimentation and that will mean some stumbles along the way. You can’t experiment with wireless technology without access to spectrum.
There is an international push for more unlicensed spectrum that could be open to a range of uses. The key areas of development are Television White Space (TVWS) and shared spectrum using the new technology of cognitive radios. TVWS are the frequencies allocated for television broadcasting that in many areas are not fully in use. TV White Space rules in the United States, in the United Kingdom and in many other countries have either been finalized or are quite advanced. And TVWS is already being used to provide wireless broadband in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In Canada, there are vast areas of the country where the TV frequencies are underused; however, our policy has not kept pace. The public needs to have access to these valuable frequencies.
Canada already has Remote rural broadband systems (RRBS) to provide wireless service in remote rural communities in Canada, using TV channels that are unallotted and unassigned. Initiatives like this need to be expanded. Rural Canada is not well-served by the 700 MHz auction. Unlicensed spectrum may be the best option for real rural development.
What don’t we understand well about spectrum auctions?
The licenses being auctioned in January 2014 are for 20 years; the previous auction licenses, in 2008, were for ten years. 20 years is an eternity in the digital age. This is why I think we overestimate the public income generated from these auctions. If you amortize that bid over 20 years, it quickly becomes clear that this is a very good investment for the telcos.
By contrast, Shared spectrum is just that – spectrum that is licensed to no one, allowing for wireless devices that can read what frequencies are available and use them for short periods. There is huge potential here. I have spoken to CEOs of technology companies in Canada who want to see Canada become a world leader in unlicensed spectrum. This is a great area for public use and economic development. This is what the President’s Council is pushing for in Washington.
Over the summer, our colleagues at CEP proposed the government set up a fourth publicly-owned carrier for better competition and service, and we know Saskatchewan has such a utility, what are the outcomes of that approach?
Despite the outcry by many in the media when this idea surfaced over the summer, the fact is that Saskatchewan has been well-served by Sasktel, a crown corporation. Sasktel has proven an innovator in many areas. It was the first in Canada to offer Internet Protocol Television, before Telus’ Optik and Bell’s Fibe service. It is obligated to provide service to all the people of Saskatchewan. The 700 MHz auction has very weak rural roll-out conditions. The market, left to its own devices, has little interest in rural Canada. It never did.
The only option in much of rural Canada is satellite internet, which is not near the speeds of modern wireless providers.
Many of the points against establishing a public carrier are largely ideological.
What are some critical next steps for citizens, business and our governments in order to move forward in this important debate?
We can’t let this be just a discussion between government and industry. The public needs to be an informed part of the spectrum process. This is what we try to do at Canadian Spectrum Policy Research. After all, it’s our resource. Too much of Canada’s spectrum policy is developed behind closed doors. Over 2000 Canadians submitted to the call for comments on Canada’s Digital Economy Strategy; three years later the government has not responded. That’s inexcusable.
The summer of 2013 was a pretty good start. Spectrum policy suddenly became front page news. However I felt the focus was too narrow – it was really just about monthly bills and no discussion concerning the wider potentials of spectrum usage. Debates were often simple discussions about how can our bills be lower and how can we fight back against the hated big three telcos. I understand the frustration consumers feel but we must also take a wider view. Your monthly bill is only part of the story.
We’re at a key juncture in wireless development.
Gregory Taylor is Principal Investigator, Canadian Spectrum Policy Research, Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management, Ryerson University