Ian Scott is right about 5G

Chairman Ian Scott is most assuredly correct in his request for more power over the placement of electronic equipment, in the light of the approach of 5G technologies. It is reassuring to see that the Canadian regulator is showing signs of active engagement with how Canada will need to adapt to the requirements of 5G. It is also instructive to read how far in advance the European Union appears to be relative to us in comprehending what needs to be done.


5G is one of those annoying terms of technobabble which obfuscate their own significance. The term 5G encompasses the capabilities of the coming generation of radio-based communications in extremely short gigahertz frequencies. A European Union document, 5G for Europe, an action plan, of September 2016, says that “planned 5G networks are expected to serve up to one million connected devices per square kilometer, about a one thousand-fold increase as compared to today”. Further, “the small cells will also have to be connected efficiently to the rest of the network with high-capacity backhaul communications, since the aggregated volume of data passing through these small cells will  reach several gigabits per second.”

Having spent a few days rummaging through the European Union documents, I am impressed with how seriously the EU and its 28 countries are engaged in preparation for 5G. First, they started planning by at least 2012. The EU has understood four things at least about 5G that need to be grasped here.

  • It will require spectrum coordination. With 28 countries, spectrum will need to be available in the right bands at the right time in a common or compatible  plan across Europe.
  • It will require the densification of physical emplacements to handle smaller cell sizes, and this in turn will require that all holders of infrastructure will need to be engaged in a process of emplacing physical equipment. Not just telecommunications carriers, but owners of highways, ports, airports, water and sewage, and roads will need to have a regime of dispute settlement for the emplacement of infrastructure. (see Directive 2014/61/EU of May 15 2014 on measures to reduce the cost of deploying high-speed electronic communications networks)
  • There will need to be a regime that authorizes entry into buildings, the emplacement of infrastructure into buildings, and the handling of disputes about these matters. (Same directive as above) 
  • Most important, the Europeans envisage that “5G networks will lower market-entry barriers for customized communications service in multiple sectors, by giving controlled access to real or virtual network resources without the need to own a whole network infrastructure . As a consequence, new innovation models, and new ecosystems, should arise on top of communication services, following a model similar to that of cloud computing systems, or even the internet”. (Action plan, page 10) 

Europe has moved decisively beyond the facilities-based competition doctrine and its fetishistic insistence that all competitors carry a signal on substrates they own end-to-end (except for the large incumbents who act as MVNOs to each other). Their planning for 5G envisages operators not owning their whole network infrastructure.

The advent of 5G is not just a challenge for the CRTC. It will involve an effort of national coordination in spectrum, regulation, planning and yes, provincial cooperation in many cases. Europe may have 28 Member States; we have at least 12, that hold jurisdiction over property and civil rights in the province. Last time I checked roads are within provincial jurisdiction, and I do not see how we can get to the ubiquitous connectivity we need without somehow empowering some people to emplace infrastructure in other people’s physical infrastructure, settling disputes about that access, and finding information about physical network infrastructure conveniently. (In the European parlance “network infrastructure” refers to the physical infrastructure of roads, airports, railways, water and sewage, and harbours). Much of this is within federal jurisdiction in Canada, but by no means all of it.

I think this effort to prepare for 5G is a classic case where a multi-stakeholder (MSH) process might assist. An MSH process is particularly helpful where there is no overarching sovereign governing all players in all respects, where parties are no sure what the problem is that needs to be solved, and in what order, and where consensus can be found by rational discussion. 

Why care?

I think the case is well made in the document 5G Global Developments (14.9.2016), which accompanies the 5G for Europe: an Action Plan. [Go to the bottom of the page for the download.] The list of reasons includes

  • increases in mobile video consumption
  • the advent of machine to machine communication
  • time-sensitive applications (requiring low latency 1 millisecond) such as driverless cars.

What impresses me most about the European approach is the seriousness with which they view 5G as their opportunity to unleash European entrepreneurship and inventiveness. They have lost so far to American companies in seizing the future. They seem intent on not losing out in the next round of invention, entrepreneurship, financing,  technology, and governmental assistance to all of those.

In preparing for this completely predictable event – think Moore’s Law whenever you doubt the reality of things like 5G – the EU and the governments of Europe have done what they can, in time, to prepare the ground.

Canada, and especially all parts of its government communications regulatory and planning apparatus – Industry Canada, the CRTC – needs to start seeing the whole picture of what 5G portends. The EU’s efforts in this regard  should be paid attention to. This is way larger than what our domestic telecommunications carriage industry is capable of handling on its own. Preparation for 5G will involve many stakeholders, private and public. 

And to bang on this drum once more, the 28 states of the EU have clearly embarked on a wholly different view of how competition in communications is going to come about. They have seized on the relationship of innovation to developments in mobile communications that situates the issue of competition in its proper context, where competition is understood as a part of a much larger process of innovation, and where prospect of innovation is held more important than the specter of a lessening of carrier profits.


 PS: I do not wish to imply that the EU has embarked upon a comprehensive policy of mandating access to MVNOs; the EU relies in general on robust competition among 3 or 4 mobile networks in each Member State. George Serentschy wrote me as as follows:

“Mandated access at preferential terms (regulated prices) for MVNOs has been imposed by the European Commission as a merger remedy in Austria, Germany and Ireland as part of a 4à3 merger. Over time, these access provisions became more and more elaborated, in Germany in the most sophisticated manner.

“In the context of the coming 5G spectrum awarding in Germany, some kind of general access obligation has been articulated by some politicians and folks from the MVNO camp, however, the German regulator refused to get a general obligation for MVNO access in place.

 “As I said, there is no general obligation in place for allowing MVNO access in Europe, but this doesn’t mean, that there are only MVNOs based on the relevant merger remedies in the market. Many MVNOs are running their operation based on commercial grounds with the host network operator.”

My thanks to both George Serentschy and Scott Markus of WIK for their clarifications on this point.


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