Monday 17 June 2013

CRTC Chairman Indicates Future Area of Proceedings

As you are likely aware, there are two major broadband infrastructure projects underway in Sault Ste Marie.  Bell is installing its Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) technology under the marketing name Fibe and Shaw is installing literally hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the city under the marketing name Shaw Go WiFi.  

At the moment, these new service offerings are “closed” networks in that you must sign up for service from either Bell or Shaw to gain access to the network infrastructure as a user.  This is unlike the existing wireline services such as DSL and cable which are “open” networks in that a third party network operator can purchase wholesale network capapcity and resell it to end users.

This closed network approach may be subject to change in the not too distant future. 

In his keynote speech at the recently concluded Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto, the Chairman of the CRTC, Mr. Jean-Pierre Blais indicated that the CRTC would be conducting a number of reviews of telecom policy over the next few years. In particular “Another review will explore whether additional wholesale high-speed access services should be mandated, including fibre-to-the-premise facilities. We will hold a proceeding to determine whether competitors should have mandated access to these high-speed fibre networks—and, if so, when, where and at what cost.”  

This has all the potential to develop into a real cat fight as the vendors will likely fight tooth and nail to keep their networks closed.

Mr Blais also addressed the question of what broadband download speeds Canadians should expect.  The CRTC last indentified the target speed standards in 2011 as “…by the end of 2015, the CRTC expects all Canadians to have access to broadband speeds of at least 5 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads. This is the minimum speed we believe Canadians should be able to receive.”  Good luck in attaining this goal in many parts of rural Ontario unless additional fibre optic backbone infrastructure is rolled out.

Mr. Blais added “It’s time to prepare to take another look at our basic service objective, something we will do in 2014-2015.”  He gave fair warning to the vendors by asking “Should broadband be considered a basic service for Canadians across the country?
That’s one of the key questions we will be asking when we start our review. We will also look at whether there should be changes to the subsidy regime and national contribution mechanism.”

If broadband is eventually classified as a “basic service“ then it will be considered the same as telephone and dial-up Internet connectivity which are currently classified as a basic services.

Mr. Blais continues to expand his growing reputation as a consumer centered Chairman.  His handling of the Wireless Code process and hearings was praise by both industry and consumers, an experience that must have felt strange to old time CRTC staffers who were often berated as industry insiders.

Handset Frequency Spectrum Bands

If you have not noticed, the operating spectrum used by smartphones has undergone a major change in the last few years. It was not that long ago that if you had a handset capable of operating in the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz bands you were in pretty good shape.

That started to change with the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum auction in 2009 which opened up additional spectrum space in the 1700 MHz and 2100 MHz bands. With the conversion to digital TV freeing up spectrum space, the 700 MHz band came into play. The most recent announcement in June 213 delayed the 700 MHz spectrum auction until early 2014 but this has not stopped the handset manufacturers from building the 700 MHz capability into their handsets.

The latest frequency to be added to the mix is the 2.6 GHz band. This is being used by Rogers in its LTE mode branded as LTE Max.

The expanded use of the spectrum is being matched by changes in technology. In simply terms, the original technologies of CDMA and TDMA have morphed into the current HSPA+ and LTE mix; the so called 3G and 4G networks. While Bell, Tbaytel and Telus still operate legacy CDMA networks, only Public Mobile of the new AWS entrants opted for CDMA but did so in the little used PCS G band (1910-1915 MHz and 1990-1995MHz). All the other networks in Canada operate as hybrid HSPA+ and LTE technology.

Most of the expanded demand for and use of spectrum is the direct result of the rapid growth of data transfer over smartphones. If you want to get a feel for this growth, I recommend you look at the Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012–2017.

Not all smartphones are equal when it comes to frequency coverage outside the basic bands. There are literally thousands of smartphone designs on the market and they have different spectrum band options. I have chosen a few of the more popular units to show what one needs to be aware of when selecting a handset.

There are two spectrum bands which appear to be consistent across a wide range of phones. They are:

 a. The GSM bands operating at  850/900/1800/1900 MHz;

 b. The  HSPA/HSPA+ bands operating at 850/1900/2100 MHz.

Note: the 900/1800 MHz combination is used by many carriers overseas. I am not aware of any carriers using them in Canada. With these bands built in to the handset and if the handset is unlocked, a user can acquire fairly inexpensive cellular service overseas.

When it comes to the LTE bands, things are little different. It varies according to manufacturers and wireless carrier.

a. Samsung S4 and Blackberry Q10 have LTE 2100/2600 MHz versions available (Rogers LTE Max compatible)

b. Samsung SIII .has a LTE 1700/2100 MHz version available.

c. Apple iPhone 5 has a LTE 700/1700 Mhz version available

d. Apple iPhone 4 does not have a LTE frequency version

An example of having the right handset for the right expectations are the recent announcements by Rogers of the LTE and LTE Max network roll out in Sault Ste. Marie. One needs a 2100/2600 MHz capable phone to use the LTE Max network.

Within each band there are also frequency assignments amongst the carriers. This means that while a phone may have the necessary band installed it is locked to a specific carrier’s frequency allotment. Unlocking the phone, installing the appropriate network’s SIM card and signing up for either a pre-paid or post paid service plan will get the hand set working.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

CRTC Questions Bell's Deferral Account Plans

Apparently I was not the only one that had issues with the Bell Deferral Account quarterly report for 15 Apr 13. The CRTC made a redacted version public by on 22 Apr 13. I discussed the report in this blog entry.

The CRTC wrote a letter to Bell on 05 Jun 13 questioning whether or not the company could meet the proposed August 2014 target date to have the project finished. They are particularly concerned that no new sites are scheduled for activation in 2013 as part of the Deferral Account program.

They raised questions about the amount of backhaul construction yet to be completed and the number of communities that need site acquisition negotiations to start or be finalized.

As the CRTC states in the letter: “In the Commission’s view, the rollout plan is significantly back-end loaded, jeopardizing the timely rollout of service to consumers” and also “Ultimately, it is the Canadians who live in those [Deferral Account] communities who will be impacted.”

The bottom line in the letter is “… the Commission directs the Bell companies to identify, by 17 June 2013, a) the major risks associated with its rollout plan, and b) its mitigation strategies to address each risk such as, for example, accelerating the rollout to specific communities.”

The full letter can be read on this CRTC site.

In a related matter, as reported in this blog entry, there are Deferral Account site surveys being conducted throughout the District. The latest reports indicated activity in the Nils Bay region of the Goulais Deferral Account area and the Sterling Bay region of St, Joseph Island Deferral Account area.  

Thursday 6 June 2013

Bell Heyden Greenbelt Cell Site Update

The tower for the new Bell cellular site identified in this blog and located in the North Sault area is now visible to the west of Hwy 17 North at the city limits. Today there were no cellular antennas or radio heads visible on the tower. The design is a self-supporting triangular shape similar to the ones across from Gino’s restaurant and at the Third Line and Black Road area.

There is no indication when the site work will be completed or when the site will become operational.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Is the Ontario Wireless Legislation Now Required?

As noted in this blog, a new national CRTC Wireless Code will come into effect on 02 Dec 2013.

The question I now have is what impact will this have on the proposed Ontario wireless code first announced in April 2012 and re-introduced in April 2013 with minor adjustments. This was discussed in this blog.   

Based on information available in public sources, most of the major points identified for inclusion in the Ontario legislation are included in the CRTC Wireless Code.

The only significant differences, in my opinion, are:
a     The Ontario proposal allows customers to cancel their agreement within a year of signing and get a full refund if wireless companies don't abide by all the rules in the proposed legislation. There is no similar proposal in the CRTC Wireless Code.

b.     The CRTC Wireless Code identifies how the customer complaint process will be handle d  through the  Commissioner for Complaints for telecommunications Services Inc. (CCTS)  while the Ontario proposals to date does not identify how customer complaints will be handled.

Unfortunately, neither proposal identifies what the sanctions for non-compliance are, how they will be applies, who will benefit if financial sanctions are to be applied and what the timeline for complaint resolution will be.
I am not sure the provincial legislation is any longer required except for the PR image it may create. In fact it may hurt customers more than help.
If the vendors have to create and monitor separate contracts and wording for each individual provincial jurisdiction they operate in, there is little doubt the cost of the requirement will be passed on to the customer somewhere along the chain.   
Perhaps all that is required is a one or two line bill that simply states that the CRTC Wireless Code will be the law in Ontario.  

Monday 3 June 2013

CRTC Wireless Code Published

The CRTC released its long awaited and anticipated Wireless Code today, 03 Jun 2013.  The code will come into effect for agreements signed after 02 Dec 2013. Terms and conditions of the CRTC Wireless Code cannot be applied retroactively to existing contracts.

Like any attempt at regulation of an industry, there are good points and bad points depending on which side of the fence you are on.

I imagine the feature that will attract the greatest attention is the fact that the CRTC Wireless Code in effect does away with the three year contact without really doing away with the three year contract. Confused?  What the CRTC did was make it against the code to charge anything extra to cancel a contract after its 24th month. Bear in mind these only impacts the revenue the vendor may have received for the remainder of the contract.

The consumer is still on the hook for the cost of any hardware subsidy they may have received.

The CRTC Wireless Code identifies how the cost of the subsidy is to be calculated based on either the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price  - the MSRP tag we are used to for other products but which is seldom charged – or the price the vendor will sell the hardware for without a contact. In either case, the bill opt out of a contract could still be hefty based on the subsidy received. 

I suspect there will still be backlash against the need for users to payback any subsidy.  The problem as I see it that people want a phone that retails for $400.00 to $700.00 to be provide for around $150.00 with the vendor absorbing the difference every time the user wants to change to phones.

The CRTC Wireless Code stipulates that the cancellation date shall be the date is notified of the request to cancel and not 30 days later. This 30 day policy was particularity annoying to users who owned their hardware and wanted to switch vendors.  

You can also get ready to receive a huge pile of paper or a large data file when you sign up for service. The list of compulsory items to be included is extensive. A current cell phone contract can run in the range of 12 to 20 pages. I suspect the new ones will be longer as they move from “legal” to “simplified” and they add all the various provincial code requirements.

One issue addressed but not resolved gives the user the right to refuse any unilateral change in contract by the vendor that does no benefit the user. The CRTC Wireless Code does not state what happens if the user refuses. Previously, a user had the right to refuse but the vendor had the option to cancel the contract and therefore the service without charge to the user. This will likely need clarification.  

Full details of the CRTC Wireless Code can be found at this website. An infographic version of the highlights is available at this website.