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Spectrum scarcity looming

We are not filling the available pipes as quickly as our cousins to the south, but analysts say it is only a matter of time.


July 1, 2010  


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In May, the federal government released a discussion document to solicit public input on Canada’s digital economy strategy. If you have not already participated, it is likely too late to formally comment — the July 9th deadline demonstrated the government’s sense of urgency on the issue, but also did not provide a lot of time for quiet contemplation of the many, many issues involved.

Still, it is a worthwhile read and if experience proves anything it is that our digital strategy is something we, as Canadians, will have to revisit frequently. There is no harm in reading up on the issues now in preparation for the next round of consultations.

Indeed, the issues related to wireless aare probably going to be with us for quite some time, despite everybody’s best efforts.

For starters, there is widespread acknowledgement that broadband access to rural and remote communities is a story of no, or slow, access and high costs. It is also apparent that networks powered by terrestrial wireless and satellite technology are the most cost-effective means to deploy the service levels that are crucial to bringing all Canadians into the digital society.

And while federal, provincial and territorial governments are already taking steps — such as the federal government’s Broadband Canada program — to fund targeted initiatives, the discussion document specifically asks, “What steps should be taken to ensure there is sufficient radio spectrum available to support advanced infrastructure development?”

It is a good question and one that applies not just to sparsely populated areas but also to urban cores. The proliferation of wireless devices — smart phones, wireless routers, Black Berrys, PDAs, Kindles, iPads, and so on — provides Canadians with on-the-go access to corporate applications and information, plus videos, music, games, and other bandwidth-intensive content. We are not filling the available pipes as quickly as our cousins to the south, who are already experiencing dropped calls and sluggish data transfer rates, but analysts say it is only a matter of time.

Industry Canada is taking steps to address the problem with plans to reallocate spectrum in the 2500 MHz band and to open up the 700 MHz band, currently used for analogue TV transmission, when those services move to all digital transmission next year. And the department plans to consult on the 1.4 GHz, 70 GHz, 80 GHz and 90 GHz bands for broadband use as well.

But finding new spectrum is only one part of the answer. It is all-but-guaranteed that new devices and services will fill any new spectrum that is made available and at some point, demand will equal supply no matter how quickly free spectrum is allocated.

Therefore, the industry will have to examine all aspects of wireless to ensure spectrum is used efficiently and wisely. For example:

• Carriers may need to review their pricing structure in the future to ensure Canadians value the spectrum they are using. Flat rate pricing is popular and helps promote market uptake of new devices and services, but usage caps are needed because unlimited plans lead to abuse. Some carriers have usage caps, others do not.

• Device manufacturers need to continue to improve their products to ensure they are efficient spectrum users. Great strides have been made in power efficiency, to the point where today’s devices are smaller, but can do more with longer battery life than ever before. The same attention needs to be paid to spectrum management.

While the government’s consultation will move on to policy formation, the conversation needs to continue. One way to do that is to get involved and find out what technology is coming, what services people are creating, and how businesses and individuals want to use their wireless connection to the digital world. CNS

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or trevor@wordstm.com.