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Consultation on Air-to-Ground Services in the Bands 849–851 MHz and 894–896 MHz

October 2006
Spectrum Management and Telecommunications


  1. Intent
  2. Background
  3. Recent Developments
  4. Discussion and Proposals
  5. Future Action

1. Intent

As announced in Canada Gazette notice DGTP-011-06, Industry Canada is releasing this consultation paper to seek comments on proposed changes to the Department's policy on the use of the spectrum in the bands 849-851 MHz and 894-896 MHz. Comments are sought concerning these proposed policy changes, as well as regarding this spectrum in general. Respondents who would like the Department to consider alternative proposals are requested to provide rational and supporting information; and to address any related issue outlined herein.

The subject of this consultation is limited to Industry Canada's rules concerning the spectrum used to transmit information between aircraft and ground stations. The use of licensed spectrum on board aircraft, such as PCS frequencies, may be the subject of a future consultation. Note that from the standpoint of airworthiness and aircraft safety, the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) on board aircraft, including cellular phones and wireless LANs, is regulated by Transport Canada.

2. Background

In notice DGTP-002-90 published in May 1990, the Department designated the bands 849-851 MHz and 894-896 MHz for "the establishment of an air-to-ground public telephone service in Canada. An air-to-ground public telephone service is a service whereby passengers aboard aircraft can place telephone calls using an air-to-ground radio network interconnected to the terrestrial public switched telephone network." This kind of service to aircraft has also been referred to as public correspondence with aircraft.

The spectrum was divided into ten paired blocks, each separated into 29 channels of 6 kHz, 6 control channels of 3.2 kHz and two guard bands. Ground stations and airborne mobiles were permitted a maximum e.r.p. of 100 W and 30 W respectively. The Department's technical requirements were established in document TRC-81.Footnote 1

The designation of these frequency bands was also done in a similar manner in other countries such as the U.S. and Mexico. This enabled the provision of the service over an enhanced coverage zone. The frequency sharing conditions in border areas with the U.S. were established in an arrangement Footnote 2 between Industry Canada and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The Department authorized the spectrum through a comparative licensing process. National licences renewable on an annual basis were awarded to two companies. Today, Bell Mobility Skytel is the only incumbent in this band pair.

3. Recent Developments

In December 2004, the FCC revised its rules concerning the bands 849-851 MHz and 894-896 MHz to facilitate the provision of new wireless Air-to-Ground Telecommunications Services, including voice, broadband Internet and data services. The provision of land mobile or fixed services in this air-to-ground spectrum is not permitted and the maximum transmitter power for ground stations and airborne mobile stations was modified to a maximum e.r.p. of 500 W and 12 W respectively. The band plan has been reconfigured as 3 MHz (1.5 + 1.5 MHz block pair) and 1 MHz (0.5 + 0.5 MHz block pair), in the following format:
diagram of band plan - 849.0–850.5 MHz - 1.5 MHz exclusive and 850.5–851.0MHz - 0.5 MHz exclusive

The FCC has established a transition plan in order to allow the spectrum to be replanned while providing for the continued provision of the existing service until new technologies are in place to provide a viable alternative. As part of that transition plan, incumbents are to cease operation of their service in the new 1.5 + 1.5 MHz block pair within 2 years, but are allowed to continue to provide current service using their existing narrowband technology in the new 0.5 + 0.5 MHz block pair for a maximum of 5 years. This continued operation is to be achieved using a subset of channels that are compatible with the original band plan and infrastructure layout.

In June 2006, the FCC licensed the air-to-ground spectrum through an auction process. As a result, two nationwide licences were awarded for a term of ten years. No one party is permitted to hold both licences. The winner of the 1.5 + 1.5 MHz licence has a five-year construction requirement. At the end of five years, the licensee is required to have either 20 fully operational base stations, or have a number of fully operational base stations to serve at least 25 of the 50 busiest airports.

4. Discussion and Proposals

(1) Service provisions:

The bands 849-851 MHz and 894-896 MHz are allocated to the aeronautical mobile service on a primary basis. This is the only spectrum used for the provision of commercial telephony services to aircraft in Canada. The current designation focuses on the provision of telephony services through interconnection to the terrestrial public switched telephone network. While the specific designation may be restrictive in today's technological environment, the regional allocation to Canada, the U.S. and Mexico has historically proven to be advantageous for airline travelers, permitting aircraft telephone calls to take place over the entire North American continent.

The current band plan was designed to support analogue modulation and the transfer of data using modems operating at low speeds, which was the technology available in the late 1980s. The band plan design included a precise channelling plan with communication and control channels, as well as guard bands. While the total amount of spectrum available in the bands 849-851 MHz and 894-896 MHz can support new digital technologies to provide broadband services, the current band plan is too restrictive for these applications. The Department therefore recognizes that the existing band plan may need to be modified to support advanced services.

In general, more recent band planning has typically moved away from a technically prescriptive approach, only prescribing instead the minimum technical requirements necessary for the adequate management of interference between allocated bands. This has provided the flexibility needed by service providers when choosing equipment and planning their networks. In considering the future of this spectrum, the Department is of the view that there is a need to accommodate the introduction of new technology for applications requiring high data rates such as Internet access.

The Department notes that the U.S. has modified its band plan to enable the provision of broadband services. This plan includes a wider 1.5 + 1.5 MHz block pair and a narrower 0.5 + 0.5 MHz block pair. Both block pairs are expected to accommodate an array of spectrally-efficient digital technologies. The adoption of such a band plan in Canada would support the provision of enhanced services and meet the expectations of Canadian travelers to have access to the latest technologies. It would also foster interoperability and continue to yield the benefits of regional harmonization.

The Department will therefore retain the current allocation of the band pair 849-851 MHz and 894-896 MHz to the aeronautical mobile service for public correspondence with aircraft, as per footnote 5.318 to the Canadian Table of Frequency Allocations. Footnote 3

However, the Department proposes to modify the air-to-ground designation to remove technology specific limitations while still expecting the use of spectrally-efficient technologies. The current designation is for an Air-to-Ground Public Telephone Service whereby passengers who are on board aircraft can place telephone calls using an air-to-ground radio network interconnected to the terrestrial public switched telephone network. The Department proposes to instead designate the bands for air-to-ground radiocommunication applications. Furthermore, the Department proposes to adopt a new band plan based on the allocation of two block pairs that are harmonized with the U.S. band plan configuration.

The Department seeks comments on its proposal to modify the designation of this spectrum for air-to-ground digital radiocommunication applications and to harmonize the band plan regionally. Respondents suggesting alternatives should describe how their proposal would enable broadband services, roaming and interoperability.

(2) Technical considerations:

In the current layout of base stations, the ground station locations and channel block assignments have been predetermined in order to promote interoperability and to manage interference. These locations and assignments are consistent with a cross-border agreement between the FCC and Industry Canada which allows equitable access to the spectrum by both countries. This pre-planning ultimately enabled service providers in Canada and the U.S. to setup networks to provide service with interoperable equipment.

The existing arrangement is based on a narrowband channelling scheme and will need to be renegotiated to enable full frequency re-use, while ensuring equitable access to spectrum in border areas. The new arrangement may also provide provisions for the locations of terrestrial stations that are based on agreements between Canadian and U.S. licensees. In examining the technical and operational limits for this band, and in the context of the provision of new broadband services to aircraft using new spectrum efficient technologies, the Department recognizes that different power limits may be desirable.

The Department notes that the U.S. has modified its technical requirements concerning the allowed maximum transmitter power. The allowed transmitter power for ground stations has been increased to 500 W e.r.p. while the allowed transmitter power for airborne stations has been reduced to 12 W e.r.p. Similar modifications in Canada would allow ground stations to be built further apart, requiring fewer stations to provide the same coverage area which in turn may minimize the cost of network rollout. It should be noted that an increase in the allowed maximum power limits will require modifications to TRC-81 and may also require the need for the Department to review current assignments in adjacent bands.

In keeping with its intention to leverage regional harmonization and foster interoperability, the Department proposes to adopt these same values.

The Department seeks comments on its proposal to adopt maximum transmitter power limits for ground stations and airborne stations of 500 W e.r.p and 12 W e.r.p., respectively. Respondents suggesting alternatives should describe how their proposal would minimize interference, use spectrally-efficient technologies, and enable regional harmonization and interoperability.

(3) Licensing process:

While there remains only one incumbent, the existing band plan was designed to accommodate up to 6 nationally licensed service providers, each of them having access to a non-exclusive pool of 29 narrowband channels in each transmitting station's coverage area. The proposed new band plan provides for two block pairs. Given the new focus on broadband services and the network design needs, making the spectrum available as one licence per block pair on a national basis would be more appropriate.

The Department therefore proposes to make available two national licences, one for 3 MHz (1.5 + 1.5 MHz ) and one for 1 MHz (0.5 + 0.5 MHz ), in accordance with the proposed band plan.

However, there may be a need to ensure that no one licensee acquires both licences. Noting the 3 MHz spectrum aggregation limit adopted in the U.S., the Department seeks comments on whether a similar restriction should be adopted in Canada.

The Department seeks comments on its proposal to make this spectrum available as one national licence per block pair, consistent with the proposed band plan, and on whether a spectrum aggregation restriction should be adopted. Respondents suggesting alternatives should describe how their proposal would facilitate enhanced services, network deployment and the coordination with U.S. licensees.

The Department recognizes that market demand should play a role in the development of new services for Canadians and will continue to seek the highest valued use for the spectrum resource in Canada. The Department will hence make the spectrum available using an auction, in accordance with its current licensing policy.

As a first step, the Department will seek expressions of interest for each of the block pairs, by an established application deadline.

Should there be no contention for a specific block pair the Department will consider awarding the licence for this block pair to the sole applicant. In such a case, the licence issued would be an annual radio apparatus licence subject to the fees established under the Radiocommunication Regulations.

However, should there be contention for a specific block pair the Department will award the licence for that block pair using an auction. The licence issued in this case would be a spectrum licence.

In any case, the Department expects to see the spectrum used in a reasonable time frame after it is licensed.

(4) Transition plan:

The Department recognizes that the changes required in the re-planning process in order to accommodate new technologies to provide enhance services, are sufficient to warrant a new licensing process. The Department also recognizes that a transition will be required to accommodate new licences. Given the need to change the infrastructure and network layout that is expected anyway, such transition should not impact users negatively provided that a suitable process is put in place.

This transition should provide a clear path from the current band plan and current licences to the new band plan and associated new licences. It should minimize service interruption, maximize flexibility and take into account the need to make appropriate arrangements with U.S. service providers, as appropriate. It should also provide some measure of flexibility to the incumbent for the purpose of decommissioning the current infrastructure while providing timely access to the new licensees.

The Department therefore proposes a transition plan whereby the incumbent licensee would be directed to terminate transmissions in the bands 849-850.5 MHz and 894-895.5 MHz by the end of June 2008. As part of this transition period, the Department also proposes to award a licence to the incumbent licensee for the sole purpose of continuing to provide existing service to existing customers in the bands 850.5-851 MHz and 895.5-896 MHz during the transition. This licence would be renewable on an annual basis until the end of April 2010, at which time the incumbent would be directed to terminate transmissions.

The Department seeks comments on its proposal for a transition plan, including the proposed transition measures. Respondents suggesting alternatives should describe how their proposal would give some flexibility to the incumbent, minimize service interruption and provide timely access to the new licensees.

The Department notes that private arrangements between new licensees and the incumbent can be made on a voluntary basis in order to access the spectrum at an earlier date, within the provisions of the transition plan.

5. Future Action

The policy proposals found herein do not bind or prevent the Minister from taking any action in the future under the powers conferred to the Minister under the Radiocommunication Act.

October 20, 2006


space to insert signature
Leonard St-Aubin
A/Director General
Telecommunications Policy Branch


  1. back to footnote reference 1 Telecommunications Regulation Circular 81, Technical Requirements for an Air-Ground Public Telephone Service in the Bands 849-851/894-896 MHz (TRC-81).
  2. back to footnote reference 2 Terrestrial Radiocommunication Agreements and Arrangements (TRAA), Air-to-Ground Radio Services Operating in the Bands 849-851 MHz and 894-896 MHz.
  3. back to footnote reference 3 The Canadian Table of Frequency Allocations assigns the electromagnetic spectrum between 9 kHz and 275 GHz and establishes the frequency allocations available for radio services in Canada.
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