TORONTO – Fearing that their nation is falling further behind the US and Europe in developing and deploying next-gen wireless services, Canada's top wireless carriers are prodding the federal government to release critical spectrum for 5G sooner rather than later.
Speaking at the Canadian Telecom Summit here earlier this week, executives from BCE Inc. (Bell Canada) (NYSE/Toronto: BCE). Rogers Communications Inc. (Toronto: RCI), Shaw Communications Inc. and Telus Corp. (NYSE: TU; Toronto: T) all urged the government to move much faster on auctioning off spectrum in the 3.5GHz range. With the feds not slating a 3.5GHz auction until sometime in 2020, the carriers complained that they're largely in a holding pattern right now, consigned to just conducting technical trials in the lab.
Telus CTO Ibrahim Gedeon, an outspoken critic of government policy, was particularly emphatic in an early keynote address. "For the last three years, the mobility spectrum for 5G is 3.5GHz, yet our plan in Canada to make that available is, I would say, 2020?" he said. "We have a number of partners --Nokia, Ericsson, Siena and Huawei -- and I would like you to put yourself in their shoes because I am empathetic. If we live in a country where they’re not going to be able to demonstrate something, how much do you think they would invest in making sure something like this happens?"
Echoing Gedeon's message, other wireless execs said their companies are ready and willing to upgrade to 5G technology and start field trials and pilot deployments of 5G, like Verizon and AT&T are already doing south of the border. But they feel stymied because the spectrum for those deployments has not yet been made available.
"Competition will drive 5G in Canada," said Brian O'Shaughnessy, SVP and CTO of Converged Networks at Shaw Communications, speaking on a separate 5G panel. "We need the government to get spectrum in the hands of carriers as soon as possible so we can go after each other."
Acknowledging that call to action, Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Minister Navdeep Bains sought to assuage industry concerns that Canada is falling way behind on the 5G front. Speaking on the final day of the three-day conference, he pledged to release more millimeter-wave spectrum and start the regulatory process for selling off 3.5GHz spectrum.
"We are proposing to release an additional 1 GHz of millimeter-wave spectrum and are also launching a consultative process that will advance us toward the 3500 MHz auction," Bains said. "The consultation reflects our commitment to get this spectrum into the marketplace in a timely way that also supports competition. We know that industry wants access to this spectrum."
But Bains, who is Canada's top telecom policymaker, did not propose moving up the government's timeline for releasing the highly desired 3.5GHz spectrum for 5G use. Under the latest spectrum road map released this week, ISED plans to stage one spectrum auction a year for the next five years, including the 600 MHz range next year, 3.5GHz in 2020 and millimeter-wave in 2021.
So, while the news of 5G progress was hailed by the industry at the show, it will be at least another two years or so before the prime 3.5GHz spectrum actually becomes available for wireless use. That means Canada will likely still lag well behind the US and western nations in rolling out 5G.
In his keynote speech bemoaning Canada's slow spectrum sale pace, Gedeon dramatized that fact with a slide showing the countries that have pushed 3.5GHz to its carriers. The list featured the US, UK and Australia, as well as India, Saudi Arabia and China, among others. But next to Canada on the map was a big red X.
Gedeon noted that the first hints of what 5G might be came out of a gathering of wireless CTOs in Vancouver in 2013, putting Canada briefly in the lead on the technology. "Do you think there will be a lot of firsts in Canada when we don't have the opportunity for them to grow and try things?" he asked.
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading