The Canadian Telecom Summit has been one of the largest annual meetings of telecom professionals in Canada for nearly twenty years. This year’s summit, from June 4 – 6 in Toronto, featured wide-ranging discussions including leading telecom executives from Canada, the U.S. and Europe and government officials on the major issues and goals facing the many players in telecommunication. These included panels focusing on: 1) preparing Canada for 5G data coverage; 2) the need for telecoms to partner with big data firms as households become increasingly digitally connected (or “smart”); 3) the future of privacy and data security for customers, and; 4) the Federal Government’s priorities for the sectors, including bringing greater access to affordable data for urban, rural, and Indigenous communities.
I. Preparing Canada for 5G Coverage
5G data coverage, which is the next generation of wireless data services, promises to make it possible for cities to become fully connected, as buildings, utilities, and people will be able to constantly share data. This connectivity can make cities more efficient by allowing businesses and government to mine this data, discover inefficiencies and redundancies, and correct them. Canada promises to be a major part of this initiative, with Google’s intention to build a smart city in Toronto, which will feature a fully interconnected neighbourhood.
The jurisdictions that can achieve 5G coverage will have a competitive edge in attracting new technologies and business opportunities that can take advantage of this new interconnectivity. Ibrahim Gideon, the CTO of Telus, noted that Canada needs a fully allocated 5G spectrum to take advantage of these opportunities. Mr. Gideon lamented that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has not yet fully auctioned the 3.5 – 4GHz spectrum, where 5G will be broadcasted, and this puts Canada at risk of falling behind other jurisdictions. Not only have Western counties like the US, UK, EU and New Zealand allocated or planned out this spectrum, but so have Saudi Arabia, India, China, Japan and South Korea have as well. In his keynote, Mr. Gideon called on the Federal Government to create a clear strategy and timeline on how the 5G spectrum will be allocated and when; only once this is done can businesses seize on the new opportunities that 5G offers.
II. Big Data Firms – The Home Invaders
Michael Weening, EVP of Calix, a major US business-to-business telecom service in the Internet of things (“IoT”) space, spoke of the need for telecoms to partner with large technology companies like Apple and Amazon so that Internet service providers are not left behind by the coming technology changes.
As major technology firms develop new IoT applications, like Amazon with Alexa and Google with Home, these companies are creating new interactions inside their customers’ homes, which are new opportunities to connect with their customers and build goodwill. Since these IoT devices rely on Internet connections to work, telecoms are a crucial part of this experience. However, Amazon and Google will reap the rewards of positive customer interactions and when they don’t work, the telecoms are blamed.
This leads to a situation where technology firms will benefit from the goodwill and telecoms will continue to be viewed as a necessary evil to facilitate online-based services. Telecoms suffer from brand invisibility as no customer loyalty is developed when IoT devices work, but when the devices don’t work the telecoms take the blame. One solution is for telecoms to partner with these firms, allowing them to piggyback off the brand building they are engaged in. If Rogers can offer a “Rogers + Google” service, there is more likely to be a positive customer association with the Rogers brand every time Google Home helps a consumer. This strategy is increasing with Fido packaging a Spotify subscription with their phone plans and a Rogers and Netflix partnership in 2014.
III. Privacy and the Digital Footprint
While Mr. Weening’s presentation opened up many interesting possibilities for the future of telecom service, as a law student I couldn’t help but be concerned by the legal implications of personal information collection by these smart home devices. The panel on privacy and information security focused on the implications for these new services and the need to evolve consumers’ digital footprint beyond a mere email and password combination.
Ann Cavoukian, a Senior Fellow at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers Leadership Centre and the former Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, noted that over the past two years, the percentage of consumer concerned about the privacy of their information has increased to 90%. Ms. Cavoukian pointed out that is more important and profitable for telecoms to build trust with their customers regarding the integrity and privacy of their personal information than to collect as much data as possible. She noted that research shows when customers are informed that their data is private and only used for a specific purpose, they are more likely to consent to future requests for uses of their data in different ways.
Other panelists noted that since Canada adopted the Internet earlier than most countries, its privacy legislation is out of date and out of touch with the internet. Jurisdictions that were slower to adopt the Internet, like the EU, have observed the effects the Internet has on society and have had an easier time legislating accordingly.
A related panel, “Cultivating an Innovation Economy” discussed how telecoms need to help facilitate a revolution in digital identity. One of the biggest cybersecurity problems is that people protect their valuable data with an easily hacked email and password combination. However, smartphones are complex computers capable of acting as a digital fingerprint for online services. Telecoms that can create a secure digital identity for their customers could have a strong competitive edge as privacy and information security becomes a greater concern for consumers.
IV. Minister Bains on Connecting the Arctic and Rural Canada
The 2018 Canadian Telecom Summit ended with a keynote speech from the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the department in charge of the Telecommunications Act.
Minister Bains spoke of the government’s partnership with Bell to bring LTE data coverage to the Arctic, connecting Inuit communities to the rest of Canada. The construction of over 15 cell towers across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut could also help stimulate commercial investment in Canada’s North beyond the traditional natural resource extraction industries.
Minister Bains also introduced the new Connecting Families Initiative, where the government is planning to extend data coverage to many remote rural communities in Canada that currently have no data coverage. This initiative will also provide up to 50,000 low income families with a personal computer and access to a low-cost public internet plan for $10 per month. The goal of this initiative is to help alleviate isolation and poverty in rural communities by connecting them with urban Canada and creating new opportunities in their community.
This year’s Canadian Telecom Summit showed that the commercial opportunities created by telecommunication continue to broaden and that Canada is far from a global leader in this area. At the same time, there is a clear sense that the current government wants to make Canada’s technology economy more competitive and ensure that issues of privacy and accessibility are addressed. There is great promise in the commercial opportunities in this space, but measures like a clear spectrum allocation strategy and more competition in the telecom space is needed to spur more growth in this area.