Fifteen things you need to know about the spectrum rules for Private 5G networks in Canada

Jul 5, 2023 • 10 min

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Written by David Woodcock, Head of Product Strategy

In May 2023, the Canadian federal government, through Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), announced a new set of spectrum licensing rules that will effectively allow private 5G networks in Canada. The “Decision on a Non-Competitive Local Licensing Framework, Including Spectrum in the 3900-3980 MHz Band and Portions of the 26, 28 and 38 GHz Bands (SPB-001-23)” is a long and complicated publication, so I thought I would highlight some key takeaways here for your reading pleasure. If you want to read it yourself, you can find it here. I should add that the government asked for public input into the process that resulted in these new rules and 37 different organizations responded. These organizations ranged from companies like the big three national Canadian telecommunication companies and Amazon to smaller regional service providers, equipment manufacturers, the railway and mining industries and First Nations. Not everyone agreed with everything here, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Here are fifteen things that are worth knowing:

  1. Licenses will be issued based on a Non-Competitive Licensing (NCL) model (i.e., not auctioned). Licenses will be granted on a First Come, First Served basis so all you need to do is apply. This is meant to keep costs down for private network owners / users.

  2. The first spectrum to be made available will be 3900-3980 MHz. There will be eight (8) blocks of unpaired 10 MHz spectrum. This band was chosen because there is equipment that is readily available, and to be consistent with other countries.

  3. Licenses will be issued for defined geographic areas, not based on a radius around a transmitter location which is the historical method of doing it that accounts for the propagation range of the radio signal. Using defined geographic areas will make it easier to manage licenses. Licensees will be allowed multiple licenses to cover their geographic area, but each Licensee will be limited to a total of 20 MHz of spectrum.

  4. ISED will implement an automated licensing system to manage separation between different Licensees for the same or adjacent spectrum. This will be done to control potential interference. For example, indoor and outdoor systems operating in the same geographic area could interfere with each other, so ISED will manage spectrum assignments to help prevent this.

  5. Allowed power levels will be established on a band-by-band basis but will be generally lower than typical power levels for other license frameworks (i.e., auctioned spectrum). Low-power licenses will be limited to geographic areas up to 15 square kilometres, and Medium-power licenses will be allowed for areas between 75-165 square kilometres. Medium-power licenses are only available in Rural and Remote areas, but Low-power licenses will be available in all areas (see the Tier 5 service area decision from July 2019 -- DGSO-006-19 for definitions of Metro, Rural and Remote areas).

  6. Fees will be charged per MHz per square kilometre at the following rates: $1.80 for metro and urban areas, $0.45 for rural areas and $0.01 for remote areas. Therefore, using a 10 MHz license in a 10 square kilometre geographic area in an urban centre, the license cost would be 10 MHz x 10 km^2 x $1.80 = $180 / year. The minimum fee will be $48/year.

  7. NCL Licensees may deploy base stations anywhere in their license areas but may not transmit to or receive from devices outside their license areas. The ISED automated licensing system will help by providing physical separation between spectrum assignments to mitigate the potential for interference, but this is no substitute for proper RF planning and design when implementing a radio system.

  8. Licenses will be granted for one year, renewed annually on March 31. Licensees will have a high expectation of renewal unless they have committed a breach of license conditions. In other words, if you are planning to invest in a private 5G system, make sure you understand and follow the rules so that your annual spectrum license is renewed.

  9. There will be temporary non-renewable licenses available for up to 11 months. These might be used for things like special events.

  10. Applicants must comply with existing rules and regulations such as Radio Standards Specifications (RSS), Standard Radio System Plans (SRSP) and Client Procedures Circulars (CPC). This means you still need to know what you are doing when it comes to designing and operating a radio network.

  11. Once you have a spectrum license, you must actually deploy a network. This will prevent applicants from obtaining a license and sitting on it, preventing others from using that spectrum. (This rule is relaxed for temporary non-renewable licenses.)

  12. Licensees must allow for Lawful intercept. Lawful intercept is the requirement that telecommunication service providers give access to law enforcement (with the appropriate legal authority) to monitor network traffic. This is a standard rule for service providers that operate radio networks in auctioned spectrum, and private 5G networks will be no exception.

  13. Licensees must share towers and sites. Tower and site sharing are just what they sound like – you must make your towers / sites available for other service providers to use, and you can request access to towers / sites owned by other service providers. This is meant to ensure fair access to optimal locations (building roofs, etc.) and avoid the proliferation of towers, but it is subject to technical and commercial feasibility. For example, if there physically isn’t room at a site, or upgrading the facilities would be prohibitively expensive, then an alternative solution is acceptable.

  14. Licensees must also comply with Mandatory Roaming requirements as a condition of the NCL license. Roaming is where a subscriber (user) of one network is able to use another network (just like when you travel to another country and your smartphone still works). The rule says you must offer Roaming service when asked by another network operator and where technically feasible. However, you are allowed to require a commercial agreement with the other network operator first. The bottom line is that even if you operate a private network, you may be asked to provide service to other people, and there is a formal process for handling these requests.

  15. The ISED consultation about mmWave spectrum (specifically 26, 28 and 38 GHz) is still ongoing. Decisions for this spectrum range are still pending but the NCL licensing model will apply. So, if you were excited about the prospect of much wider channel bandwidths and higher performance for your private 5G network, you are just going to have to be patient.

    Private 5G networks are an exciting concept for certain use cases such as campus communications, remote Internet access or industrial IoT. However, building and operating one requires expertise. If you are considering it, I recommend working with a knowledgeable vendor or systems integrator who can help navigate the challenges.

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