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Experts peer into the future of Canada's wireless 'spectrum' and predict seismic shifts

Ultra-fast 5G broadband services will herald sweeping changes for consumers, business, and governments

Gregory Taylor, assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film, co-chaired the Canadian Spectrum Summit 2017, to discuss the future of spectrum management around the globe. Photo by Riley Brandt

By Barb Livingstone

As you check in with friends on Facebook, search for directions to the nearest Starbucks, or pay your phone bill over the Internet, you probably give little or no heed to the multi-billion-dollar power struggle going on behind your cellphone.

Yet that battle over control of spectrum — those invisible bands of frequencies of airwaves carrying wireless signals for radio, TV, GPS, and your phone — will not only affect your future access to data (from how fast you get it, to how much you pay for it) but also how you receive health care, and how well, and how safely, your driverless car gets you from point A to point B.

Academics, regulators and industry from all over the world met at the Canadian Spectrum Summit at the University of Calgary to offer new ideas on spectrum — how it is bought, how it is shared, how the public interest is (or should be) preserved, and how “idle spectrum” (that which is never used, particularly in non-urban areas) should be re-allocated.

Spectrum a critical resource for consumers and business

And as more consumers worldwide buy smartphones (some estimate 50 billion to 100 billion devices will be connected to the Internet just three years from now) spectrum is critical to the industry. After all, those smartphones use an estimated 24 times more data than a traditional cell phone; and tablets consume 122 times more data than old phones.

In Canada, like many other countries, says conference organizer Gregory Taylor, assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film, spectrum “auctions” — closed to the public — are held by Ottawa where telecom providers (the Big Three are Telus, Bell, Rogers) bid for spectrum.

“It is crack for governments — they are hooked on it — because it makes billions of dollars quickly and no one notices it’s gone.”

Spectrum auctions generate cash for governments

Why is money going into public coffers a problem? “In Canada, the government can get between $2 billion (2015) and $5 billion (2014) in an auction but the lease lasts for 20 years. It’s a one-time infusion of cash and the question is what citizens give up and what the alternatives might be,” says Taylor, who notes spectrum is a publicly-owned resource.

That debate over spectrum, and how it should be allocated, could be turned topsy-turvy in a few short years with the introduction of fifth generation or 5G broadband.

As the developing world heads towards 5G, data access will become faster, more efficient and cheaper — and your providers could significantly change.

5G implementation to begin around 2020

Martin Cave, a regulatory economist and professor who advises government and industry around the world, says the earliest implementation for first-stage 5G would be 2020.

But full impact is at least five years later when high-speed connectivity (100 times as fast, according to some experts) would allow the Internet of Things — from controlling your thermostat remotely, to having long-distance robotic surgery, to driverless cars talking to each other, and to traffic infrastructure.

And that, says Cave, will mean a huge change to the structure of spectrum users.

Maybe it will be Alberta Health Services negotiating spectrum provision of e-health in a 5G world, or General Motors “leasing” it for its autonomous cars.

Cave says it definitely means new ways of sharing spectrum and the heavy costs of attendant infrastructure. That could see mergers among large providers and certain disruption of traditional customer relationships.

So as you order your groceries online, and contemplate the day your fridge tells you what to buy, think about spectrum. It may become part of your daily vocabulary.