Canada-U.S. spectrum agreement will eliminate interference in border areas: Industry Canada: This Week In The Wire Report: CATA Speaks Out
August 24, 2011

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) new arrangement with Canada to share the 700 MHz and 800 MHz spectrum bands in border areas will help eliminate interference and strengthen public safety, Industry Canada says.

“The arrangement with the U.S. ensures that future Canadian 700 MHz operators will have equal access to spectrum within 120 km of the border and provides clarity on the international coordination requirements in force in that area,” Industry Canada spokeswoman Lauren Hébert told The Wire Report in an email response to questions.

“Similarly, the Canada-U.S. technical sharing arrangement in the 800 MHz band ensures minimum disruption to Canadian users of the band near the border, following the U.S. decision to re-organize the band.” FCC chairman Julius Genachowski announced the agreement early this month, noting in a statement it would “unleash investment and benefit consumers near the borders by enabling the rollout of 4G wireless broadband service and advanced systems for critical public safety and emergency response communications.”

The FCC has ordered a reorganization of the 800 MHz band to alleviate interference with public safety uses caused by commercial cellular licensees. “The technical sharing principles reached on 800 MHz will pave the way for completion of 800 MHz rebanding by U.S. public safety and commercial licensees operating along the U.S.-Canadian border,” the FCC said in a release. The agreement also harmonizes spectrum uses in the 700 MHz band along Mexico's border.

In Canada, much of the 700 MHz band will be freed up at the end this month through the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting. The department has not yet announced a policy framework for the 700 MHz band, but a decision is expected this year.
 
Canada’s public safety and security sector is asking for an additional 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum, the department noted last November in its consultation document for the band. Right now, the public safety sector has been allotted 24 MHz of spectrum from the 700 MHz band. Of that, 16 MHz in the portions 768-776 MHz and 798-806 MHz, are made available for “narrowband” public safety systems. Industry Canada is not saying whether it will release more 700 MHz spectrum to the public safety sector.
 
In response to a question about whether the new agreement between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico will mean the public safety sector will gain more access to the band, Hébert wrote: “These arrangements do not change how much spectrum is available for the 700 MHz auction. They are meant to ensure that Canadian operators—of any system—in the 700 MHz band will have equal access to spectrum in border areas.”

Spectrum experts have said the department's position on the release of more spectrum to the public safety sector will be influenced by the policy approach of the U.S.

The Obama administration announced in January that it plans to reserve the D Block portion (758-763/788-793 MHz) of the 700 MHz band for public safety uses. Industry Canada auctioned off parts of the 800 MHz band for mobile wireless services in 2008. Hébert said Industry Canada analyzes policy and consults on the possibility of aligning spectrum internationally, particularly with the U.S., each time it considers spectrum for new purposes. “In many cases, aligning with the U.S. enables economies of scale and greater equipment availability for consumers and infrastructure. In the case of public safety, aligning with the U.S. can also facilitate cross border interoperability,” Hébert wrote.

Using a “narrowband” portion of spectrum allows all first responders along the Canadian and American borders to talk to each other, she said. “This portion of the band includes nation-wide interoperability channels that are also aligned with the U.S.,” Hébert said. “This will allow all first responders, on either side of the Canada-U.S. border, which are using equipment in the narrowband public safety portion of the 700 MHz, to talk to one another.”

The auction for the 700 MHz band, which will also be available for mobile services, is expected to be held next year or possibly in early 2013. Hébert said the international agreement would not have any effect on the timing or plans for the 700 MHz auction, “other than ensuring that Canadian operators in the 700 MHz band will have equal access to spectrum in border areas.”

Adrian Foster, a spectrum expert and partner with McLean Foster and Co., said in an interview that, by coordinating with the U.S., Canada will decrease interference in the 800 MHz band. “We’ll coordinate the assignment in such a way to minimize the interference in the 800 MHz band,” he said. “That will increase the potential for future assignments for cellular, for example. So that’s all a good thing.”

According to a best practices guide for avoiding interference between public safety and commercial wireless systems on the 800 MHz band, compiled by a working group of experts from the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International Inc., the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, Motorola Inc., Nextel Communications Inc. and the Public Safety Wireless Network, interference occurs when emissions from older public safety and commercial systems overlap with mobile communications systems, which were designed at a different time for a different purpose.

“[They] may not be capable of rejecting locally robust commercial transmissions on adjacent frequencies,” the report says. Foster said that although Canada has followed the U.S. on a number of spectrum decisions, the U.S. has had a much bigger problem with respect to the 800 MHz band.

“The Americans, for some time now, have been insisting on requiring transit companies, fire departments, bus companies, and the rest that were using SMR radio types in 800 MHz, to move to some new digital bands,” Foster said. “They had assigned it for that purpose, as well as having set up specific allocation for public safety in the 848-828 [MHz bands].”

Foster said interference is a symptom of the fact that the 800 MHz band is very busy and that, due to demand for broadband and data on digital radio systems, the U.S. has a shortage of spectrum for wireless services.

Canada is in a more favorable position than its neighbours because of its smaller population, Foster added. “We have some border issues, but a lot of our main cities are like Edmonton, Calgary, and places like that are not necessarily on the border … So there’s less demand for spectrum in Canada,” he said.
 
Wayne Stacey, a spectrum expert with Wayne A. Stacey & Associates , said in an interview that that the agreement was “just good housekeeping.” Stacey said in an interview that the commissions generally try to work out a domestic procedure that is useful to each country. The agreement harmonizes the use of spectrum on both sides of the border as much as possible and reduces the potential for interference, he said. Stacey also said the spectrum must be shared in an “equitable” manner, with larger pieces being distributed to larger border populations.

Dr. Sorin Cohn, an executive in-residence at the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA), said in an interview that the agreement could represent a significant improvement for first responder services in both countries.  “There’s a lot of coordination work going on, such as those bands being used in similar ways,” Cohn said. “[It] will minimize as much as possible the interference between Canadian and American services.”

Under the existing allocation for broadband, Cohn said that, in an emergency situation where most of the population uses wireless devices, emergency responders can be “blocked out” from cellular service.

“They don’t have any capabilities to date to allow them to communicate among themselves,” Cohn said. “In the past, the police were buying a certain type of radio, fire services were buying a different type of radio system, and EMS [emergency management services] would have something else. They would never talk amongst themselves. That’s unacceptable nowadays.” Cohn said coordination must be established or one system in Canada can be confused by a system in the U.S. and viceversa.

He said more spectrum is needed for emergency services. “What we (CATA) have been discussing with first responders—the police, the emergency medical and the fire services among others—is that standard cellular technology needs evolution,” Cohn said. “A move towards broadband should be applied as much as possible.”

Foster said the new agreement “just reflects the reality of today.” “They’ve done a good job,” he said. “They’ve reached those agreements and it sounds as if everybody’s in sync.”

dgrenier@thewirereport.ca