TORONTO — Canada's push toward fifth-generation wireless technology promises network upgrades that could enable everything from powering complex new technologies to closing the digital divide.
But long before Canadians see any of the technology's promises in action, the federal government must decide how it will allocate the necessary spectrum in a new auction round.
For 5G technology to work as Canada's carriers hope, they will need huge blocks of spectrum — the radio frequencies that carry signals to receivers embedded in smartphones, sensors and other connected devices.
"Industry needs that (spectrum) to deliver all of the capabilities of 5G and to keep up with the demand for wireless services," says Eric Smith, a spokesman for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.
"So timely allocation of the necessary spectrum is important," Smith said.
Government slow to make decisions
The problem, however, is the Canadian government has been slow to make decisions when it comes to the allocation of the 600- and 3,500-megahertz spectrums — two frequency bands that could be useful for 5G wireless networks.
The telecoms are waiting for the Department of Innovations, Science and Economic Development to set out a framework for acquiring 3,500 MHz spectrum, a mid-range set of frequencies that's been identified as the primary band suitable for the introduction of 5G services in Europe before 2020.
Consultations on 3,500 MHz won't be officially launched until the summer and it's unclear when the auction will be held.
In fact, ISED only announced last week the terms for holding a 600 MHz auction next March — years after it began the process of deciding what to do with it.
ISED Minister Navdeep Bains says the government is aware of the importance of 5G technology, and is committed to supporting it, but it wants to get the ground rules right — not just for the industry but for consumers.
He says that 600 MHz spectrum is the first of its kind that's shown potential for 5G wireless use but it's also well-suited for rural and remote areas — which the government wants served.
"I think spectrum is not a point of conversation that many people can directly appreciate," Bains said.
He said spectrum licences are one of government's tools to stimulate competition which, in turn, will lead to lower, affordable prices and innovation leading to better-quality service.
"And that's really the purpose of spectrum," Bains said.
Challenges delivering to rural areas
But Gregory Taylor, a University of Calgary academic who has spent years analyzing Canadian telecommunications policy, is skeptical that the government will be able to deliver what consumers want throughout the country.
"Most of us live in cities, so if you cover the cities you cover the majority of the population. But the challenge in Canada has always been in getting communication technologies out to the rural area."
There's no economic rationale to support it, so the government has tried various ways to persuade industry players to address the needs of remote parts of Canada, Taylor says.
But Taylor says he doesn't think successive Liberal and Conservative governments have used the leverage they have from controlling access to spectrum.
One tradeoff would be to insist on improved coverage for rural and remote areas with 600 MHz spectrum as a condition of issuing 3,500 MHz spectrum that could be even more important to 5G in urban areas.
Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's department of communication, media and film, says he's wary of the hype surrounding 5G because "right now we simply don't know the details of it."
"Before we make this jump to 5G, I think the priority should be that we make sure we fill in all of these areas of Canada that are, right now, not receiving proper coverage. And then we should move onto areas of 5G."
The problem for the rural areas is, there's never that much of a financial return.
But he acknowledges the odds are against ensuring coverage for rural and remote communities.
"The problem for the rural areas is, there's never that much of a financial return," he said. "So the government will talk about it, but the companies simply don't want to do it."
On the other hand, Canada's governments and its telecom industry see the promise of 5G, which some say is progressing more quickly in Asia and Europe than in North America.
It's also why Bell, Telus and Rogers and other carriers have been running 5G pilots and preparing to spend billions of dollars to upgrade their networks to be ready for the early stages of 5G technology within a year or two.
Bains says the Trudeau government is committed to striking the right balance of innovation, coverage and affordable prices.
"5G has enormous potential for innovation and we don't want to rush things. We want to make sure we get this right."
"So we'll work with industry stakeholders — and even civil society — to make sure we put the best possible framework in place."
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