Thursday 19 August 2021

Canadians to get 5G Upgrade after conclusion of 3.5 GHz Spectrum Auction

The Canadian telecom market continues to show steady development as operators invest in network upgrades. Much of this work is being supported by regulatory efforts to ensure that operators have spectrum available to develop 5G services, for which several auctions are planned through to 2024. Assigning and releasing spectrum for 5G will allay existing fears that the country could lag developments in the US and Europe. In addition, the regulator has set aside a portion of certain spectrum for new entrants to encourage competition in the wireless segment. Much of the investment among operators has been channelled into LTE infrastructure to capitalise of consumer demand for mobile data services, while there has also been further investment in 5G.

At the same time, fixed-line telephony services are dwindling as customers make greater use of mobile networks and VoIP options. Revenue from the broadband and mobile sectors is underpinning overall telecom sector revenue while the fixed-voice sector continues to decline.

The mobile penetration rate remains comparatively low by international standards, and so the market offers further room for growth. Canadians are well provided for LTE and LTE-A infrastructure. Despite topographical challenges and the remoteness of many areas, the major players effectively offer 99% population coverage with LTE. 

The government has endeavoured to encourage market competition by ensuring that blocks of spectrum have been reserved for new entrants, while preventing deals among operators which would have concentrated spectrum either regionally or nationally. About 43% of spectrum to be auctioned in the 600MHz band has been reserved for smaller operators in a bid to encourage competition.

Canada has 3 national mobile providers: Rogers Wireless, Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility. In the last few years all networks have moved to the GSM-based technology on 3G and 4G/LTE, CDMA is gone.

On 2G (GSM/EDGE) Rogers is the only provider on 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. All operators have 3G (UMTS) on 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. 4G (LTE) is widely available on all providers. If you have signal, chances are you will be getting at least 3G.

In Canada, UMTS-based HSPA+ and DC-HSPA+ used to be called "4G". Real 4G on LTE began some years ago on the Big Three networks on 700 MHz (B12/13/17) and 1700 MHz (B4). Rogers, Bell, and  Telus also support the 2600 MHz (B7) frequency, which is far more compatible with devices from overseas, but it is usually not deployed throughout the full footprint and is generally confined to the big cities. Bell and Telus have also refarmed some 1900 MHz (B2) to LTE. Extended coverage (meaning Rogers roaming on Bell/Telus, and the reverse) is not available to prepaid customers. As a general rule, Bell and Rogers are stronger in the east and Telus is stronger in the west, but Bell and Telus have implemented RAN sharing, so they can effectively be seen as one network. Also important to note is that Rogers only has "extended" coverage in the north of Canada (Yukon/Northwest Territory/Nunavut), so you will not have coverage as a prepaid user. If you need coverage in the north, you will need to sign up with Bell, Telus, or one of their sub-brands, or get an Ice Wireless SIM once you arrive.

The government of Canada recently confirmed it had raised a total of CAD8.9 billion in its auction of 3.5 GHz spectrum, which will be used by local carrier to further expand 5G services in the country.

5G licenses in this key band were made available based on 172 localized service areas covering the entire country, allowing bidders to target geographic markets, including rural areas. The government noted that a total of 23 companies participated in the auction. In total, 1,495 out of 1,504 available licenses were awarded to 15 operators, including 757 licenses to small and regional providers across the country.

In Opensignal’s first comparison of the 5G experience across carriers in Canada, they found a mobile network experience landscape characterized by extreme competition. Out of seven awards for the taking, not one award category was won outright by any of the operators. Users saw three-way statistical ties between Bell, Rogers and Telus on three metrics — 5G Availability, 5G Reach and 5G Upload Speed — and in the remaining categories, users saw ties between two operators.

Historically, Canada has been one of the leading 4G markets globally when it comes to mobile network experience. In the latest Global Mobile Network Experience Awards report, all three national carriers — Bell, Rogers, and Telus — placed in the top ten for Download Speed Experience, but when it comes to 5G, Canada is losing global leadership.

Due to challenges with limited 5G spectrum Canada is now losing ground in 5G compared with other countries. This change of fortunes as we enter the 5G era is likely because Canada’s carriers are limited to deploying 5G in lower spectrum bands for now, as the auction of the critical 3.5 GHz mid-band spectrum was delayed until June 2021 due to COVID-19. However, even then, Canadian carriers will have access in this auction to a very limited amount of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band — 200 MHz (maximum of 150 MHz for Bell, Telus and Rogers) — which is significantly lower compared to many other 5G countries. The full capabilities of 5G are best realized through the wider channel sizes in the new 5G bands, as for users to enjoy the best 5G speeds, carriers need to be able to deploy 5G with 100 Mhz channel sizes which is extremely difficult for carriers to achieve without access to new mid-band spectrum.

Open Signal have also reported on the difference in mobile experience in urban and rural areas. This improved drastically over the years and, on average, is significantly higher than in many other countries globally. However, Opensignal's analysis shows that the urban/rural divide in the mobile experience continues to exist in the country. While the operators and government have been addressing this issue, it is evident that there is more to be done to remove the rural-urban gap.

Rogers and its sub-brands are the only national provider who offers GSM-based 2G on 850 MHz and 1900 MHz up to EDGE. Due to network sharing between the other two telcos, Rogers has slightly less coverage than other two but you will not notice much difference unless you are deep in the mountains or remote areas. A device capable of 850 MHz and 1900 MHz in 3G or 700 MHz (B12/13/17) and 1700 MHz (B4)/1900 MHz (B2) in 4G is essential.

Rogers was the first operator to bring 5G to Canadians in early 2020, and over the past year and a half it has delivered 5G connectivity to over 800 communities across Canada, now reaching more than 50% of Canadians. By the end of 2021, over 1,000 communities – more than 70% of the population – will have access to Rogers 5G. Recently, Rogers invested $3.3 billion in 3500 MHz band spectrum, covering 99.4% of the Canadian population, to enhance and accelerate the expansion of Canada’s first, largest and most reliable 5G network.

Telus and its sub-brands Koodo and Public Mobile have a GSM 3G and 4G network which is slightly better than Rogers. Their 3G/4G footprint is identical with Bell as they share the same towers. A device capable of 850 MHz and 1900 MHz in 3G or 700 MHz (B12/13/17) and 1700 MHz (B4)/1900 MHz (B2) in 4G is essential. 

Telus recently announced the acquisition of new 3500 MHz spectrum licences in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec at a cost of $1.95 billion. Combined with the spectrum it acquired privately in January 2021, Telus now holds licences to an average of 25 MHz of 3500 spectrum nationally and 40 MHz in our key markets, at an average price of $2.53 per MHz-pop. These licences will enable Telus to deliver enhanced mobile 5G broadband connectivity to its customers nationwide. The 3500 MHz band is mid-band spectrum that has become the critical global band for 5G innovation, as it offers the best combination of speed, capacity due to its wide channels and improved latency performance and coverage.

Bell's coverage is identical with Telus, due to their tower sharing agreements. A device capable of 850 MHz and 1900 MHz in 3G or 700 MHz (B12/13/17) and 1700 MHz (B4)/1900 MHz (B2) in 4G is essential. 4G/LTE is given out for prepaid:

Canadian carrier Bell’s 5G services already reach more than 40% of the country’s population and are on track to reach 70% coverage by the end of the 2021. They have secured 30% of the 3.5 GHz spectrum available to national wireless carriers at the recently concluded auction for a price of CAD2.07 billion ($1.67 billion). This included an additional 30 megahertz in each of the top three markets and an incremental 22 megahertz in their rural wireless-to-the-home markets.

Earlier this year, Bell announced the biggest capital expenditure plan in its history, with at least CAD1 billion in additional capital investment in new networks over the next two years to support the national economic and employment recovery from COVID-19. This investment is in addition to the more than $4 billion that Bell typically invests annually in next generation wireless and fibre network infrastructure and service development.

Bell announced the launch of its commercial 5G service in the country June 2020. The carrier’s 5G service was initially available in Montréal, the Greater Toronto Area, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

Also in 2020, Bell Canada selected Ericsson 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) technology to support its nationwide 5G mobile and fixed wireless access deployment. The carrier started the construction of its 5G network last year, using equipment from Finnish vendor Nokia.

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