The 600 MHz frequency band is currently used primarily for TV (UHF) broadcasting, but the band would be very useful for mobile broadband use.  The band is similar in its technical characteristics to the 700 MHz spectrum that was auctioned in 2014 by Industry Canada for mobile broadband use for total proceeds of $5.27 billion.  The frequencies in the 700 MHz band became available for mobile broadband use in Canada after broadcasters made the transition from analog to digital broadcasting with a consequent need for less spectrum to accommodate broadcasting demand.  Steps are now being taken in Canada to potentially decrease the amount of 600 MHz spectrum being used for broadcasting and other limited purposes so that the excess spectrum can be made available for mobile broadband use.

This leads to a situation in which the battle lines over access to spectrum will be drawn, at least initially, between over-the-air (“OTA”) television broadcasters and wireless carriers.  This is unlike the situation in which incumbent wireless carriers and new entrants are the main combatants arguing over set-asides for access to other mobile broadband spectrum such as AWS, 700 MHz, and AWS-3.

The battle over 600 MHz began in the U.S. when Congress adopted legislation in 2012 requiring the FCC to conduct an “incentive auction” to recover spectrum from broadcasting uses and make that spectrum available for mobile broadband use.  The incentive auction, which is now anticipated to commence in early 2016, will be a complex process involving, among other things (i) a reverse auction in which OTA broadcasters voluntarily relinquish some of all of their rights in 600 MHz spectrum in return for compensation, (ii) a “repacking” of spectrum so that the amount of spectrum relinquished by broadcasters can be made available to mobile carriers in a contiguous manner, and (iii) a forward auction in which mobile carriers can bid for the available 600 MHz spectrum, with part of the proceeds being used to pay the reverse auction price to the broadcasters. 

To accomplish the objectives sought by Congress, broadcasters must participate in the reverse auction in sufficient numbers.  As the FCC has noted: “Because broadcaster participation is voluntary, we will not know how much spectrum will be repurposed for wireless before the auction.”  It is by no means certain that a sufficient number of broadcasters will voluntarily participate.  Indeed, the auction is subject to court challenges by a number of broadcasters in the U.S.

Canada is not proposing to conduct an incentive auction in the 600 MHz band.  In March 2013, Industry Canada noted in a document entitled “Commercial Mobile Spectrum Outlook” that it would “be in a position to determine if the broadcasting use in Canada [of the 600 MHz band] can be supported using a reduced amount of spectrum” after the U.S. auction.  The Department anticipated that between 80 and 120 MHz of spectrum could be allocated to mobile broadband use in the U.S. following the auction, and observed as follows:

It is expected that the Canadian usage of the [600 MHz] band will eventually be harmonized with usage in the United States. Industry Canada will evaluate the timing and the process that could be used in Canada for the repurposing of the 600 MHz band, based on the outcome of the incentive auction process in the United States. Any decision to review these bands will be made following consultations with the public.

Industry Canada has now determined that it should not wait until the U.S. auction has been completed, and initiated a consultation in December 2014 by releasing “Consultation on Repurposing the 600 MHz Band” (the “Consultation Document”).

The Consultation Document notes that Canada and the U.S. have historically planned the use of TV spectrum jointly to maximize coverage and minimize cross-border interference, and that Canada has traditionally aligned its broadband mobile spectrum allocations with the U.S. so that Canadians can benefit from the terminal and network ecosystem of U.S. carriers.  It notes that there would be benefits to both countries if they worked together on a joint repacking algorithm (i.e., the manner of moving TV stations to a lower part of the 600 MHz band to free up the higher part of the band for broadband mobile use).  The Consultation Document announces that Industry Canada “is proposing to repurpose the 600 MHz spectrum to commercial mobile use and jointly establish a new allotment plan based on repacking OTA TV broadcasting stations more tightly in lower frequencies”, and invites comments on this proposal.

The Consultation Document proposes that the band plan in Canada be harmonized with the U.S. band plan, and notes that there will be several options since the amount of spectrum that may be repurposed will only be known following the U.S. auction.  Industry Canada states that the amount of repurposed spectrum could be between 20 and 120 MHz, rather than the 80 to 120 MHz range used in the Commercial Mobile Spectrum Outlook document. 

The Consultation Document also addresses a number of technical issues that would have to be considered and notes that all current users of the 600 MHz band (other than the radio astronomy service that makes use of channel 37) would be subject to displacement.  Thus, most Canadian TV stations in the band could be reassigned to new channels. 

While the Department recognizes that changing the channel of a regular power TV broadcaster is a complex task that requires significant time and resources, no mention is made in the Consultation Document of compensating the broadcasters for effecting such change.  This can be contrasted with the situation in the U.S. where some broadcasters will receive a significant amount of money in the reverse auction and where all broadcasters will have access to reimbursement of relocation costs from a TV Broadcaster Relocation Fund of up to US$1.75 billion mandated by Congress.  The Fund will ultimately be financed by the proceeds of the forward auction that are in excess of the amounts payable to the broadcasters under the reverse auction and the administrative costs of the FCC.

The Consultation Document states that Industry Canada’s decision on whether to repack with the U.S. will be released prior to the start of the U.S. auction, and that further consultations on the technical and licensing framework will occur in the future if the Department decides to proceed with repurposing the 600 MHz band jointly with the U.S.

Comments on the Consultation Paper are due by February 26, 2015 (an extension to this date was granted in Gazette Notice SLPB-001-15) and interested parties will have the opportunity to file reply comments within the two weeks following publication of the initial comments.