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Rural vs Urban vs 5G: An Analysis of Canadian 3500MHz Spectrum Auction Consultations

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  • Rural access to high-speed broadband services have been an ongoing concern for Canadians, and this situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic (CBC News 2020; Toronto Star 2020). Despite ongoing efforts to improve rural connectivity, access to high-speed broadband has only been provided to an additional 3% of total rural households since 2016 – a figure that now stands at only 40% overall (CRTC 2017; CRTC 2019).

    Spectrum allocation serves as a critical path for rural broadband deployment since last-mile connectivity outside urban centres still relies on fixed wireless, satellite, and other expensive wireless services (such as 4G LTE). The ability to deploy services in rural areas hinges on the availability of spectrum, which is finite. With few exceptions, this spectrum is now auctioned for the exclusive use of licensees. Recognizing that access to spectrum is a limiting factor for broadband deployment in Canada, ISED has been working to reallocate and expand access to wireless frequencies for service delivery, with high priority now placed on spectrum in the ranges of 3500MHz and 3800MHz (ISED 2018). Many Canadian analyses of telecom and broadband consultations focus on the work of the CRTC (Rajabiun and Middleton, 2015; Zajko, 2018), but ISED’s consultations are less examined (Joseph 2018). This paper contributes to existing analysis of ISED’s policy development work (Rajabiun and Middleton 2014; McNally et al 2017) with a focused analysis of two public consultations on the auction and allocation of 3500MHz spectrum licences in 2014 and 2019.

    The 3500MHz spectrum in Canada has been used for fixed- and mobile broadband services, with a focus on Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) in rural areas (Joseph 2018). This frequency range has been referred to as 5G technology’s “beach-front property” (Cramton 2019, 4) because of its complementary alignment with 5G deployments in low-band and high-band frequencies (ISED 2019). Accordingly, ISED’s (2014) decision to allocate the 3500MHz spectrum for “flexible use” effectively pits rural, fixed wireless providers against national, mobile wireless providers for use of 3500MHz spectrum and the upcoming 3800MHz spectrum range. As in 2014, the 2019 consultation places the inequality of urban and rural broadband access into the spotlight, but with the added element of imminent 5G wireless service deployment.

    This presentation outlines the results of a mixed-methods discourse analysis of public submissions and policy decisions related to the 2014 and 2019 ISED consultations on 3500MHz spectrum auctions. Through qualitative and quantitative approaches to content analysis, the authors illustrate how previous advocacy in favor of rural broadband access has, as a result reduced participation in the consultation process and ISED’s shift to flexible-use licenses for the 3500MHz range, been supplanted by the drive to deploy and generate revenue from 5G wireless networks in urban and suburban areas.

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    Conference/Workshop Presentation
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    Attribution 4.0 International