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An exposed microcell installed in a newspaper box in 2017. The CRTC will also review the issue of municipal access as part of its February hearings on the state of the wireless industry.

Handout

As they race to build next-generation wireless networks, Canada’s telecom companies are appealing to policy makers and the industry regulator to ensure that local governments don’t slow their progress.

The deployment of fifth-generation (5G) technology will require tens of thousands of “small cells" to be installed within a few hundred metres of each other on structures such as lampposts, hydro towers, bus shelters and the sides of buildings. A 2018 Accenture analysis predicted there will be up to 273,000 small cells, each about the size of a shoe box, installed across the country by 2026. Some are already in place.

To do it, carriers such as BCE Inc.'s Bell Canada, Telus Corp. and Rogers Communications Inc. will need to gain access to infrastructure that is, in many cases, controlled by municipalities or provinces. The carriers are concerned that if those governments hold up access, Canada could fall behind other countries in the 5G race.

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The issue is one of many being considered by an expert panel appointed by Ottawa to review the Telecommunications Act. The panel is expected to complete its final report by the end of the month.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will also review the issue of municipal access as part of its February hearings on the state of the wireless industry.

Currently, carriers looking to install cell towers have to get approval from the federal Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. If they wish to attach small cells to public infrastructure or lay wire underground, they must get permission from the local municipality.

There have been a number of disputes between cities and carriers over the locations of cell towers or the need to tear up roads to install fibre-optic cables. While the CRTC has the ability to resolve disputes over transmission lines, telecom companies say the process can be lengthy.

It’s common for negotiations with municipal governments to last two years or longer, Bell says in its submission to the legislative review panel. That delays Canadians’ access to advanced networks and creates “significant uncertainty” for multimillion- or even billion-dollar network expansion projects, creating a disincentive for companies to invest, Bell says.

Although the CRTC wants telecom companies and municipalities to come to a resolution together, Telus would like to see the regulator playing an enhanced role when that isn’t possible.

“When the disputes become protracted and it’s clear that there’s not going to be a resolution between the parties, they need to make sure that they’re ready to step up and make decisions and that they actually put in a process where they can make decisions faster," Telus’s director of regulatory affairs Eric Edora said in an interview.

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Rogers, meanwhile, has expressed concerns that infrastructure owners could see the opportunity as a cash cow. “These are essential facilities and owners of them cannot be permitted to exact a monopoly price for their use,” the company says in its submission to the expert panel.

If carriers are forced to pay exorbitant prices for access, they will either pass costs on to consumers or opt to forgo 5G in certain communities, Rogers says.

The company is requesting that the CRTC be given exclusive authority to establish the terms under which carriers can gain access to municipal and utility infrastructure. It also wants the commission to have expanded powers to intervene in disputes over access to non-traditional structures such as lampposts, traffic lights and bus shelters.

The CRTC has also advocated for such changes. In a speech to the Canadian Chapter of the International Institute of Communications in late 2018, chief executive and chairperson Ian Scott said the commission lacks “complete jurisdiction” to intervene in disputes over access to “passive infrastructure.”

“The solution may lie in expanding our authority to resolve disputes as they apply to non-traditional structures such as lampposts and bus shelters," Mr. Scott said. “Access to these structures will be critical for the efficient deployment of future technologies.”

The Canadian Federation of Municipalities, meanwhile, is asking the review panel to maintain the municipalities’ legislated role in managing “rights of way” – public spaces such as roads, sidewalks and ditches where the majority of telecommunications infrastructure is located.

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“In order for these corridors to function efficiently and effectively, they require proper long-term planning, as well as active daily management by municipal officials,” the association, which represents more than 2,000 Canadian municipalities, says in its own submission to the panel.

It also argues that municipal governments must be able to recoup all of the costs associated with giving telecom companies access to these public spaces. “Deploying telecommunications infrastructure generates costs: roadways are cut, lawns are excavated, trees are damaged and increased congestion complicates future work for all utilities."

In extreme cases, disputes over access to municipal infrastructure can wind up before the courts. One such case occurred when the City of Calgary tried to enact a bylaw that allowed the city to charge utility providers fees to access roads to build or repair equipment.

Four of Canada’s largest telecom companies – BCE, Rogers, Telus and Shaw Communications Inc. – took the issue to court and won in 2018. A judge at the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta ruled that because the federal government regulates telecommunications, the bylaw should not apply to the industry.

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