Watch the 700 MHz front in 2008

Probably the most compelling industry story to follow in 2008 will be the Advanced Wireless Spectrum auction, which will very likely produce at least one national competitor to the existing Bell-Rogers-Telus troika. But there’s something else in the air spectrum-wise, and this year might see some fleshing out of the bones.

In its year-end report, analyst firm SeaBoard Group suggests Industry Canada is mulling ideas for spectrum in the much lower frequency 700 MHz range. This is the range in which TV signals operate, and much of that spectrum will be freed up when Canadian broadcasters turn out the lights on their analogue operations and switch to digital.

The advantages of the lower frequency, especially longer range with less power and its ability to penetrate obstructions, offer tantalizing prospects for data use. A coalition of tech companies in the U.S. is lobbying the FCC to allow them to use the “white space” — fallow TV spectrum where no broadcaster has a signal — for data products, but it’s meeting resistance from broadcasters who say it would interfere with their transmissions.

Analogue television transmission ends in the U.S. in just over a year, freeing up a considerable block of spectrum — about 100 MHz. The FCC could sell off that spectrum for a fortune, or leave it for unlicensed devices (Wi-Fi cards, for example), or some mix of the two.

Surely Industry Canada is tempted by the potential windfall, too. So we’ll see a similar debate to the one which ended with 40 MHz of AWS set aside for new entrants — is it in Canadians’ best interests to leave some 700 MHz spectrum unlicensed?

First things first, though: Industry Canada has to follow the FCC’s lead and mandate a switch to digital TV. Give it a deadline, or the rest of the discussion’s irrelevant.

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