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Canadian Telecom Sector

The history of Canadian telephony and wireless communication runs deep. Alexander Graham Bell conducted much of his key research in the development of the telephone in Brantford, Ontario in the mid 1870s. In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic radio signal at Signal Hill, Newfoundland from a transmitter stationed in Cornwall, England. Wireless broadband is the latest evolution of this scientific trajectory.

Due to its importance to economic, social, political, law enforcement, and defense matters, telecommunications has traditionally been a highly-regulated industry. The Telecommunications Act, defines telecommunications as, “the emission, transmission or reception of intelligence by any wire, cable, radio, optical or other electromagnetic system, or by any similar technical system”.

The original licences for mobile telephony were awarded by the Department of Communications in 1983 in the Cellular band (824-849 MHz/869-894) MHz, with half the spectrum eventually going to local incumbents and the other half going to CANTEL, which eventually became Rogers Wireless. In 1995, Industry Canada, which had inherited the Department of Communications’ telecommunications authority, awarded licenes to Clearnet and Microcell (Fido), with additional spectrum going to Rogers Cantel and local carriers, from the Personal Communications Services (PCS) band (1850-1915 MHz/1930-1995 MHz).  Spectrum auctions had yet to be introduced in Canada in 1995, so these licences were all awarded based on a competitive review (beauty contest).   Companies did not pay for spectrum but they did have to pay annual licence fees based upon the number of frequency channels used at cell sites in the system, with higher fees in urban areas and lower fees for rural regions.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of mergers and acquisitions took place within the industry. Most notably, this resulted in the purchase of Clearnet by the company that became TELUS and Microcell’s (Fido) purchase by Rogers. After the wave of consolidations in the mobile communications sector, the Canadian market was primarily served by three large facilities-based providers (Rogers, Bell, and TELUS, known colloquially as “the Big Three” and “incumbents”). An emerging concern grew due to continually low penetration rates compared to peer countries and the higher costs against a number of metrics ( see  “Next Generation Connectivity: A Review of Broadband Internet Transitions and Policy from around the World“, 2009.   After the consultation process prior to the previous Advanced Wireless Services spectrum auction, (see: Policy Framework for the Auction for Spectrum Licences for Advanced Wireless Services and other Spectrum in the 2 GHz Range), Industry Canada created a spectrum set-aside, reserving 40MHz for new entrants of the total 90MHz AWS spectrum being auctioned.

According to CRTC data, in 2010 wireless revenues were $18 billion in Canada, with 25.8 million residential and business wireless subscribers. Rogers had 37% of those subscribers, the Bell Group had 29%, and TELUS 27% in 2009, accounting for 93% of the market, with regional carriers MTS Allstream and SaskTel with the bulk of the rest. Wind Mobile launched in December 2009, while Mobilicity, Public Mobile (sold to TELUS in 2013) and Vidéotron commenced operations in 2010 and accounted for just 2% of subscribers at the end of 2010. Bragg Communications Inc. (EastLink) launched their cellular services in early 2013. Shaw Communications purchased AWS spectrum licences but cancelled plans to launch mobile phone services, instead building out a WiFi network.

For historical information on the development of Cellular and PCS, see Industry Canada’s A Brief History of Cellular and PCS Licensing.  For further information on this site concerning the completed 700MHz and pending 2500MHz auctions, see Auctions.

An excellent source for historical information on Canadian telecommunications is radiocommunications.ca – a website maintained by employees and ex-employees of Industry Canada Spectrum Management, the Telecommunication Regulations Branch of the Department of Communications and the Radio Regulations Division of the Department of Transport.

Cited and Additional References:

Babe, Robert E. 1990. Telecommunications in Canada : Technology, Industry, and Government. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.


Industry Canada. 2012. Policy and Technical Framework: Mobile Broadband Services (MBS) – 700 MHz Band Broadband Radio Service (BRS) – 2500 MHz Band. edited by S. M. a. Telecommunications. Ottawa.


Spectrum Management and Telecommunications Policy. 2004. “A Brief History of Cellular and PCS Licensing.” Industry Canada, http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/smt-gst.nsf/vwapj/briefhistorycellular_pcs-e.pdf/$FILE/briefhistorycellular_pcs-e.pdf.