A decision from Industry Canada on a framework to encourage digital roaming between small rural wireless operators and the larger regional and national carriers is expected to be issued very soon and could come as early as this week, Report on Wireless has learned. The ruling comes about 18 months after the department launched a consultation into the matter (DGTP-007-03).  Fern Léger, director of spectrum and radio services at the department, says the hope is that the decision will be published on Industry Canada’s web site on Friday, July 29 and in that weekend’s Canada Gazette. He tells Report on Wireless that the conclusion of the process is to help encourage digital roaming between the small rural carriers and the larger regional and national operators.  The public consultation sought the opinion of industry and others about the potential of mandating digital roaming agreements between the small rural and larger wireless operators. Industry Canada proposed several mechanisms to promote the development of roaming agreements, including the creation of new rules for non-competitive services or new conditions of licence for existing players. The hope at the time was these types of agreements would help spur penetration of mobile services into under-served regions of the country.  Under current spectrum policies, the department mandates analog roaming among all carriers. It was imposed on all carriers to help the new PCS operators in the mid-1990s during their early network rollout phase. Industry Canada, however, has shied away from imposing the same condition for digital networks.  The problem for small rural wireless carriers is they operate primarily analog cellular networks with only small pockets of digital services, while national and larger regional players are migrating to all digital networks. When this happens, most likely in the 2008-2009 time frame, the small rural carriers’ subscribers will not be able to roam onto national operators’ networks unless there are digital roaming agreements between the two.  "So the question was whether we should make some special provision for the rural ones (to roam on to the larger carriers’ networks)," Léger explains.  But the department didn’t want to favour one set of carriers over another, so it proposed non-compete provisions. "New rural carriers, that do not compete in any area with national cellular or PCS carriers, warrant special consideration in reaching digital roaming agreements to assist the integration of their services with other national or regional telecommunications systems," the department wrote in October 2003 (RoW, Oct. 21/03). "Permitting non-competing operators to enter into preferential digital roaming arrangements with established national and regional carriers, may be justified due to their unique situation and the public interest, in view of the objectives of the Telecommunications Act." During the consultation process, Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility agreed with Industry Canada that preferential roaming agreements could only be between small, rural carriers and the larger regional and national ones. They said at the time that the agreements should only be afforded to those carriers operating in unserved or under-served regions of the country and that the roaming deals should be based on commercially accepted practices.  The small wireless carriers were aware of the reluctance of the national operators, but believed that Industry Canada’s proposal struck the right balance. "We feel that the department’s proposal addresses this concern by stipulating that the smaller carrier must not operate network facilities to compete in the same serving territories as the national or regional carrier," Superior Wireless, Thunder Bay ON, wrote in March 2004.  The company stated, however, that it didn’t support the notion of preferential roaming agreements. Superior Wireless wrote that while it believes a mechanism might be required to ensure national digital roaming for small carriers, "the terms under which roaming is granted should reflect industry norms and should be fair to both parties."  The pending decision comes at a time when the department is also looking to license unassigned and returned PCS spectrum in rural and remote regions of the country. See story in this issue for more information on this licensing process.