Spectrum war highlights communications conference

 Everyone knows wireless use in Canada is soaring. But a communications conference has heard sharply differing opinions on whether carriers face a crisis coming and what Ottawa should do about it.

Ottawa wireless consultant Stuart Jack told the conference in Toronto on Monday that demand “is just chewing up any available bandwidth carriers have” in major cities. The seriousness will depend on how much spectrum they have, how efficiently they use it and whether they can partner with other carriers, he said.

Executives from two of the newest wireless carriers warned that cries of need for spectrum from the three biggest carriers who already hold lots of bandwidth – BCE Inc.’s Bell Mobility, Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp. –should be met with scepticism.

“Look with a questioning eye” on studies from carriers who say they must have a certain amount of spectrum in the upcoming 700 Mhz wireless auction to meet demand, cautioned Dennis Beland, senior director of regulatory affairs for telecommunications at Quebecor Media Inc, which owns cableco and cellular carrier Videotron. It launched service across Quebec last fall.

Both Beland and Ken Campbell, CEO of new entrant Wind Mobile, said the big three have some much spectrum in hand their ability to buy frequencies in the auction should be limited.

Their comments came at a conference on telecommunications and broadcasting convergence, which attracted staff from Industry Canada and the federal telecom regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) as well as officials from businesses.

To paint a picture at the beginning of the conference of the country’s infrastructure needs in the future, Jack, a partner with the wireless consulting firm Nordicity, noted that wireless demand has “far outstripped” what had been predicted before the 2008 wireless spectrum auction.

Today in Toronto during peak hours – from 9 a.m. to noon, and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. – networks of some carriers can’t keep up, he said.

While nationally the big three carriers have a lot of spectrum, it’s more accurate to look at their holdings regionally, he said. So, for example, in Saskatchewan incumbent local teleco SaskTel would look to be a fair competitor against others.
In an interview later Jack said he wouldn’t describe the problems with demand carriers are facing as a crisis. However, he did warn there’s a “crunch” coming.

Some carriers are using their spectrum very intensely, he added, while others “have more than they know what to do with.”

The demand for wireless data is one reason why Industry Canada is preparing to auction off spectrum only four years after the last sale, this time in the 700 Mhz and 2. 5 Ghz bands.

Because of its ability to penetrate buildings and carry over longer distances that existing frequencies, the 700 Mhz band is very desirable. “I know of no other single event that is more anticipated by the carriers than the 700 Mhz auction,” Ottawa telecom lawyer Lorne Abugov told the conference.

Which is why, he said, incumbents and new entrants are fiercely lobbying Industry Canada on what the auction rules should be.

It was at a panel on those rules that and Beland and Campbell let loose on Bell, Rogers and Telus.

The 2008 auction, with its set-aside of spectrum only for new entrants, was a “massive policy success,” he said, arguing something similar has to be done for the 700 Mhz auction expected next year.

Otherwise, he argued, the big three will snare all the spectrum, as they did in the 2001 auction. Which is why Quebecor has told Industry Canada that for the 700 Mhz auction any carrier that already has frequencies under 1 Ghz – which would be the big three – should be limited to buying only one more block of spectrum in each region.

For his part, Campbell said that in setting the rules the government should look at the spectrum holdings of the big three and how much they’re not using. He called for the trio to be forbidden from bidding at all on the 700 Mhz spectrum.

Industry Canada has been receiving submissions on what the rules should be. However, the Harper government wanted to set a policy on liberalizing foreign telecom investment – which would affect who could bid in the auction – before deciding on the auction rules.

The conference, organized by Insight Information, continues Tuesday.

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