RMA Issue Backgrounder – Spectrum
This article is the third of a four-part series.
What is spectrum and why does it matter for rural Alberta?
Spectrum refers to the radio waves used to send a signal wirelessly. Spectrum is a finite resource, meaning it can only be used for so much before additional spectrum is required to facilitate growth. Spectrum is used by Wi-Fi routers, television, and radio. In addition to these uses, spectrum is also used to distribute internet in rural areas. While some rural buildings may receive internet from a physical connection, such as fibre to the premises, or via satellite, the majority of rural Alberta is served by spectrum-powered internet.
Spectrum is used by internet service providers (ISPs) to send internet from communications towers to rural buildings. This process is largely the same as the Wi-Fi router in your home sending an internet signal to your phone or computer but on a much larger scale. As spectrum is widely used to bring internet to rural homes and businesses, it is important to understand how it is managed.
How is spectrum regulated?
From a practical perspective, spectrum in Canada is managed by the Government of Canada through the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED). At a high level, the Spectrum Policy Framework (SPF) guides all federal government decisions made regarding spectrum. The SPF was last revised in 2007 and sets out the policy goal of relying on private ISPs to provide internet service to the greatest extent possible – more on this in the following section.
ISED allocates spectrum to ISPs using a competitive auction process. During this process, ISPs bid on units of spectrum within a specified bandwidth to provide service in a specific area. The geographic areas for each spectrum licence are determined by ISED. Therefore, in each service area, multiple blocks of spectrum are auctioned to ISPs for them to deploy internet on. If ISPs want to expand their service in a given service area, they need to acquire more spectrum in that service area. If they want to expand their service to new areas, they must bid on spectrum in that service area.
You may be wondering why the system that regulates spectrum is of interest to rural municipalities and the RMA. Spectrum regulation is important because it plays a significant role in how ISPs behave and the decisions they make in determining where to make investments.
Current spectrum issues
As mentioned above, spectrum is used for communicating a variety of information types for different uses, such as television, radio, internet, and cellphones. While different bandwidths of spectrum are better suited to some uses, there is competition within bands for different technologies. This is especially true for emerging technologies, like 5G. 5G delivers internet services in a similar manner to traditional fixed wireless technology. However, because of its relatively short range and higher cost to implement, 5G is more likely to be deployed in urban areas where there are more potential customers. As a result, spectrum bandwidths traditionally used to provide rural wireless internet access are at risk of being made unavailable or inaccessible to rural internet users.
What is the RMA doing regarding advocacy on spectrum?
The RMA is advocating for spectrum policy reform in multiple ways:
Contact RMA Policy Advisor Warren Noga at warren@RMAlberta.com.