Radio Spectrum Inventory: A 2010 Snapshot — Canada

Chapter 1 – Commercial Mobile

1.1 Background

1.1.1 Definition of Service

Commercial mobile service providers offer radiocommunication services to the general public. The services offered consist of mobile access to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), i.e. mobile telephony and, more recently, mobile access to the Internet. A commercial mobile service provider or licensee of this service, operating as a radiocommunication carrier must comply on an ongoing basis with the eligibility criteria in subsection 10(2) of the Radiocommunication Regulations and must adhere to laws prescribed in both the Radiocommunication Act and Telecommunications Act.

1.1.2 Types of Service/Applications

Mobile access to the PSTN was being offered over traditional two-way mobile radio networks until the early 1980s. These services were only available to an exclusive number of wealthy individuals and corporations, as the available capacity was limited – there were only a few hundred frequency channels available – and consumer costs were high.

The original mobile telephone service had several limitations. For example, mobile telephone calls could only last until the user moved out of the coverage area of the base station. These problems were resolved with the introduction of the cellular network architecture. Enabled by the increased electronics miniaturization and processing power, the cellular networks are characterized by two specific features:

  1. Frequency reuse – the network consists of a large number of base stations, which use the same frequencies many times over, in a defined geometric pattern, to manage the radio interference. The service area of each tower is called a cell. The geometric pattern resembles a honeycomb, which is a common symbol used in related literature. By employing the frequency reuse concept, the capacity of the cellular networks can be scaled up to tremendous values by simply making the cells smaller (i.e. using more towers). In theory, the capacity of a cellular network is infinite; in practice, there are limitations.
    Figure 1.1 – Cellular frequency reuse pattern
    Figure 1.1 – Cellular frequency re-use pattern with 21 hexagons representing cells, each containing a re-use factor.
  2. Hand-off ("Handover" in European literature) – is the feature by which a mobile device moving from one cell into another during a call is directed by the network to change its radio frequency over which it will continue communicating in the target cell. To maintain communication, the network instantaneously changes the path of the traffic voice or data channel from the first to the second tower. This ensures that a mobile telephone conversation can be carried over any length of time and at any distance as long as the user does not leave the coverage area of the network.

Over time, additional features were added to the service, including roaming, which enables users to receive service while outside of the coverage footprint of their service providers. With the advent of digital technologies, the service migrated from circuit-switched voice telephony to packet switched data which allowed access to the Internet. The mobile IP protocol was introduced in early 2000 enabling continuous mobile data sessions.

Many additional technical capabilities are required for a fully deployable operational system, including authentication, billing systems, encryption, etc. All of these add up to a high level of complexity for the whole system.

The above features enable the deployment of high capacity, extensive coverage, scalable radio networks, which make possible mass service provisioning to the general public at affordable prices. These advantages come at the price of equipment and network complexity, as well as very high capital costs to implement the extensive infrastructure required.

All mobile commercial networks in all frequency bands employ a limited number of technology standards, and all make use of the cellular architecture principles described above. As a result, these services are often referred to as "cellular like" services. For simplicity, the term "cellular" is also used interchangeably with "commercial mobile systems" in this report. This should not be confused with the "Cellular band" (824-849/869-894 MHz) – the first band allocated to this type of service in Canada and the United States in the early 1980s.

The cellular networks were initially introduced to overcome scarcity of spectrum in large metropolitan areas. The large available customer base supported the high capital and operational expenses required by the networks. In a relatively short time frame (a few decades), cellular telephones and related services have become technological products with one of the fastest growth rates in history. The "wireless industry," largely referring to commercial cellular services and the related technical/economic ecosystem, has become one of the pillars of economic growth and a large portion of the telecommunications sector. From this point of view, the cellular radio service is a good example of a new technological capability meeting a social need at the end of the 20th century.

Due to the tremendous success and popularity of the cellular service, more bands have been allocated to this service over time, as discussed in Section 1.2.

Specific to the cellular systems is the need for the spectrum licences to cover "bands" or "blocks" (rather than single channel frequencies) of frequencies over a specific geographic service area. Additional details on spectrum licensing are available in Section 1.2.3. The frequency reuse concept enables the cellular systems to make the most intensive use of spectrum. This has brought both economic and social benefits and, in a short time frame, the frequency spectrum became considered a valuable and limited resource. Initially, the licences were awarded based on fiat; later on, in recognition of the increased economic value and high demand for spectrum, the spectrum licences were auctioned.

As a service deployed in mass to the general public, and unlike many other specialized radio services, the cellular service (especially the handset portion) is subject to the technical and economic constraints impacting the consumer electronics industry, i.e. interoperability and economies of scale in manufacturing – recall VHS versus Betamax, etc. As Canada is a relatively small market, the technical standards and frequency bands of operations adopted here must be harmonized with larger international markets (United States, Europe, etc.) in order to ensure equipment availability at reasonable price points.

Although initially designed to overcome capacity limitations in high density areas, due to the popularity of the service over time, cellular services are also in high demand today in rural and remote areas. This is a challenging situation in many countries of the world, as this technology is neither geared towards, nor economically effective for deployment in remote and low density areas. From radio spectrum management, technological and economical perspectives, other services may be more appropriate to provide equivalent services in these areas.

Figure 1.2 below shows the technical evolution of cellular services from their introduction to present day.

Figure 1.2 – Evolution of cellular technology
Figure 1.2 – Evolution of cellular technology [Description of Figure 1.2]

It should also be noted that the large-scale deployment of a cellular system requires an extensive backhaul network, both with large capacity and wide geographical reach. As wireline/fibre optic backhaul is generally expensive, time-consuming to deploy and not always available, microwave backhaul is the preferred solution by many commercial mobile service providers to provide connectivity to the cell towers when wireline/fibre is not available in close proximity. Hence, commercial mobile systems have spectrum requirements not only for the "access" portion, but for the "backhaul" portion as well.

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1.2 Current Allocations and Utilization

1.2.1 List of Allocated Bands

The following is a list of bands available or expected to be made available in the near term for commercial mobile services in Canada:

Table 1.1: List and Description of Allocated Bands for Commercial Mobile Services
Band Spectrum Available Year Licensed/ Auctioned Deployment Status Comments
Mobile Broadband Service (MBS)Footnote 2
(698-764/776-794 MHz)
Up to 35+35 MHz

12 MHz unpaired
to be auctioned in 2012 – 2013 pending DTV transition on August 31, 2011 MBS is the proposed term for the commercial mobile deployments in the band.
(824-849 MHz/869-894 MHz)
25+25 MHz   100% licence extensively deployed Mature deployments, and available in less densely populated areas
1670-1675 MHz MHz Auction (part of AWS) completed in July 2008 Few licensees and no known usage One 5 MHz block 1670-1675 MHz range)
Advanced Wireless Services (AWS)
(1710-1755MHz/2110-2155 MHz)
45+45 MHz   100% licensed, with approx 33% in operation: usage by new entrants (no deployments by incumbents yet) Three 10+10 MHz of spectrum, three
5 + 5 MHz blocks in 40 MHz of spectrum (block B, C, D) set-aside for new entrants. Tier 2/3 based services areas.
Personal Communication Systems (PCS)
(1850-1915 MHz/1930 – 1995 MHz)
65+65 MHz 1995: awarded 14 companies licences, held in reserve: 30 MHz (block C/C') and 10 MHz (block E/E'). 2001: Block C/C' and block E/E' auctioned (plus returned TELUS holdings). 2008: auctioned 10 MHz block G as part of AWS auction 100% licensed; some currently in deployment stage (block G from AWS auction) Introduced spectrum aggregation limit to place limit on amount of spectrum any one entity could hold (see RP-021-now rescinded)
Broadband Radio Services (BRS)
(2500-2690 MHz)
70+70 MHz

50 MHz unpaired

Minimum of 30+30 MHz for auction
to be auctioned in 2012 – 2013 At least 60 MHz of paired spectrum in this band will be subject to auction; more in areas where there is currently only on MCS/MDS incumbent Incumbents to return 1/3 of current MCS/MDS holdings in order to convert to BRS and remain in the band

Beside the bands listed above, a cellular-like business oriented mobile telephone and data service based on iDEN technology is operated by TELUS in the 806-821/ 851-869 MHz band. This is a land mobile band which is covered in Section 3 of this report.

Commercial Mobile use from 52 MHz to 38 GHz (for additional information, refer to Annex 1):
Commercial Mobile use from 52 MHz to 38 GHz [Description of Figure]

1.2.2 Types of Licences (Radio vs. Spectrum)

The Radiocommunication Act was amended in June 1996, to give the Minister of Industry the explicit authority to use auctions to select those to whom radio authorizations could be issued. This new method of licensing required a new class of radio authorizations that incorporated the concept of area licensing (also known as spectrum licensing).

Commercial mobile service providers are granted spectrum licence(s), as opposed to traditional radio licences,Footnote 3 which are granted for land mobile services. As defined in paragraph 5(1) of the Radiocommunication Act, a spectrum licence is a licence issued in respect of utilizing specified radio frequencies within a defined geographic area.

Spectrum licences are awarded through auction, based on tier sizes which define the geographic area to be served. The Department has established four tier sizes to meet requirements for different wireless services and applications:

  • Tier 1 is a single national service area;
  • Tier 2 consists of 14 large service areas (mainly provincial);
  • Tier 3 contains 59 smaller regional service areas; and
  • Tier 4 comprises 172 localized service areas.

A geographical interpretation of the above tier sizes is located in Annex 4. To minimize the impact in network deployments, borders between adjacent areas are located where the population density is lower.

In the past, the spectrum licences were generally valid for 10 years. In the Revised Framework for Spectrum Auctions released in March 2011, spectrum licenses are valid for up to 20 years based on the specific spectrum being offered and subject to a public consultation preceding the specific auction or renewal process.

To encourage competition and new entrant operations, the Department has allowed transfers and subordinate licensing agreements through secondary markets. These arrangements can be an effective way for licensees to establish commercial arrangements with third parties for the use of the spectrum. Licensees may apply to Industry Canada to transfer their spectrum licence, in whole or in part, to another entity where the two parties have come to a commercial agreement. Subordinate licensing allows licensees to enter into arrangements in which another party can operate within their licensed area without having to completely transfer their spectrum licence(s), i.e. leasing arrangements. Although these options are available to cellular and PCS licensees, there has been limited activity to date in this regard.

1.2.3 Comparison with United States

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses these frequency bands based on defined "licensing areas." These licensing areas, similar to tier sizes used in Canada, are as follows:

  • Cellular Market Areas (CMA)
  • Basic Trading Areas (BTA)
  • Major Trading Areas (MTA)
  • Regional PCS Areas (RPC)
  • Economic Areas (BEA)
  • Major Economic Areas (MEA)
  • Regional Economic Areas (REA)
  • Economic Area Groupings (EAG)

The licensing areas vary from band to band. Footnote 4

Table 1.2 below summarizes the commercial bands available in the United States and the deployment status in each of the bands.

Table 1.2: List and Description of Bands for Commercial Mobile Services in the United States
Band Spectrum Available Year Licensed/Auctioned Deployment Status
Commercial Mobile Radio Service (CMRS)
(698-763/776-793 MHz)
Up to 82 MHz Auction completed in 2008 Service started late 2010 (Verizon)
(824-849 MHz/869-894 MHz)

50 MHz Auction 12 completed January 1997 100% used
1670-1675 MHz MHz Auction 43 completed March 2003 No known usage
Advanced Wireless Services (AWS)
(1710-1755 MHz/2110-2155 MHz)
90 MHz Auction 66 completed Sept. 2006 35% used
Personal Communication Services (PCS) 130 MHz Auctions completed in 2007 93% used
Broadband Radio Services (BRS)
(2495-2690 MHz)Footnote 5
195 MHz Auction 86 completed Oct. 2009 Deployments begun by Clearwire/Sprint (approx 35%)

Unlike Industry Canada, the FCC does not collect usage information from licensees.


  1. back to footnote reference2 This band is pending DTV transition. As such, the Canadian Table of Frequency Allocations will be updated to include a mobile allocation for the band and a spectrum utilization policy will soon be released to identify this band for commercial mobile radio services.
  2. back to footnote reference3 Radio licences are provided on a per radio apparatus basis.
  3. back to footnote reference4 FCC licensing areas:
  4. back to footnote reference5 Note: This band begins 5 BRS band (2500-2690 MHz).
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