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.