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Lost and Found in Canada

Craig Koshyk

Back in 2009, I wrote about one of the best inventions since fire and the wheel:the Garmin Astro GPS tracking collar for dogs.  I explained that the device was not authorized for use in Canada at that time, but could be authorized by 2014. So today, realizing that we are half way through 2014, I called Industry Canada, the department that oversees such things to see if Astro GPS tracking collars for dogs are now approved for use in Canada. 

Unfortunately, it's not good news:
Since release of Industry Canada’s 2009 policy decision, uncertainties have been raised regarding potential uptake of MURS devices in Canada, and the relative merits of proceeding with MURS implementation in light of potential negative impacts to incumbent licensees. As a result, the Department does not feel that the introduction of MURS devices in Canada is warranted at this time, and has decided to defer the introduction of MURS devices in Canada until a clearer indication of actual need is provided by Canadian MURS advocates and/or stakeholders. Manufacturers, importers, retailers, current licensed users, and all other stakeholders are asked to take note of this provision.

So, what the hell happened? 

Is Canada now run by a tyrannical cabal of radio frequency Nazis? How DARE they tread on my dog-given right to track my pointy hounds via satellite!

Ok, calm down Mr. Tin-Foil Hatington. Radio Nazis aren't in power in Ottawa. The truth is actually quite banal. It boils down to the differences in how radio frequencies are allocated in the US and Canada. You see, all kinds devices that emit radio waves (and other kinds of radiation) are regulated by national laws and international agreements. Often devices that are accepted for use in one part of the world may not be operated in other parts of the world due to conflicts with frequency assignments and standards. 

So back in the day, when Garmin's engineer's were designing the Alpha, they had to choose which frequencies it would use for communication between the collar and the hand-held GPS device. Garmin could have chosen the same range of frequencies that almost all of their e-collar transmitters already used. If they did, there would have been no problem using them in  up here  and in the US. Another option would have been to use the Family Radio Service (FRS) band. That would have been OK as well.  The "General Mobile Radio Service" (GMRS)  band would not have worked. It is free for public use in Canada, but in the US, you need a license to use it. 

In the end, Garmin chose to use a different portion of the range known as the "Multi Use Radio Service" (MURS) band. It is found from 151 – 154 MHz. And that is where the problem comes in. You see, in both Canada and the US the MURS band was only available for use by license holders. It was a pay-to-play band reserved mainly for business, industry and government communication applications. But in 2002 the American FCC changed its MURS policy and opened it up for public use. But Industry Canada did not. 

Bottom line: MURS is open to unlicensed users in the US, but is still not open for non-licensed use in Canada. Back in 2002, Industry Canada did not follow the lead of the FCC in the US. And now, after 5 years of thinking about it (or more likely, not  thinking about it), Industry Canada has decided that it will maintain the pay-to-play status of the MURS band. Their statement basically admits that changing the rules now would would piss off too many current permit holders. So MURS remains available only to license holders and will probably remain that way for the foreseeable future. 

But here's the thing: Astro, Alpha and other devices that use the MURS frequencies are not illegal in Canada per se. If you bring one up here, you won't be subject to a cavity search at the border and a SWAT team won't be storming your RV at grouse camp. To Industry Canada, Garmin Astros and Alphas are no different than walkie-talkies, garage door openers, remote car starters, RC model airplanes, heck even remote thermometers. Any device that emits radio waves, may or may not be approved for use in Canada, or the US. It all comes down to whether or not they conform to the FCC and/or Industry Canada allocation of radio frequencies. And even if they do, they could be rendered 'unapproved for use' by doing something as simple as changing the antenna or modifying a circuit in the device. Look what Tri-Tronics has to say about their e-collars:
"Tri-Tronics certifies its products to operate under Part 95  of FCC regulations. Unauthorized modifications to your equipment could result in its not meeting specifications  and thus violating FCC regulations. Adjustments should only be performed by technically qualified personnel authorized by Tri-Tronics. To continue to meet FCC operating specifications, any replacement of circuit components (including antennas) must meet Tri-Tronics manufacturing specifications."
Change the antenna... break the law?
So if you are paranoid about using an Astro up here, you might want to check the fine print for your walkie-talkies, garage door openers, remote car starters, RC model airplanes, even remote thermometers. They may not even be approved for use where you are either! Be that as it may, let me conclude by cutting and pasting what I wrote in 2009. Unfortunately, it still applies.

If you have an Astro or Alpha and you are hunting in Canada, remember that: Industry Canada is interested in compliance, NOT punishment. And they are not in the business of skulking around hay bails in Saskatchewan with scanners looking for law breaking Yankies with fancy collars on their high falutin dogs. So if you bring an Astro up here and it did happen to interfere with farmer Brown's radio base station and tractor in the field, or with a hydro worker repairing a line, you may be asked to turn it off and to stop interfering with the frequency. No fines, no water-boarding.

However, if you then continued to use it, despite the warning, you could face stiff penalties. But twenty grand and the loss of your car? Nope. Unless your were following fire trucks in downtown Toronto and deliberately screwing with their radios as they tried to save a burning convent and orphanage, I doubt you would get anything more than whatever equivalent of a speeding ticket gets handed out by the radio/tv cops.

Of course, I'm just some guy on the net. I am not a lawyer and I am not a cop. I'm not even coherent most of the time. So take lots of salt with whatever advice I may provide and weigh the risk-to-benefit ratio of whatever action you may take. 

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that the latest firmware update, for the Garmin Astro (and Alpha) now has a feature that automatically disables dog tracking when used in countries for which the radio frequencies are not authorized. 

So it seems that Garmin is willing and able to tweak the firmware from time to time in response to local laws and regulations. So why not tweak the firmware (and presumably a circuit or two in the radio) to do respond to owners and potential owners in countries other than the US? Why not update the firmware (and make a hardware update available) that actually makes the units compatible with regs in other countries?

After all, every single one of the e-collars that Garmin now makes (via their purchase of Tri-Tronics) are perfectly compatible with radio regulations in Canada and the US. Heck, even the Garmin Rhino (radio/gps unit) is compatible. Why not the Astro and the Alpha? How hard could it be?

Potential work-around: when in Canada, attach one of these to your dog?

UPDATE #2 Apparently not ALL of the e-collars that Garmin make are compatible with Canadian regulations: Steve Snell from Gundog Supply posted that "The new Pro Trashbreaker also uses MURS" so is therefore not authorized for use in Canada.

But the good news is that "
SportDog has a Canadian version of their GPS and Ecollar combo TEK 1 and the TEK 2 comi
ng out this Fall will also be available in Canada. They work off a legal frequency." 

Thanks for the info Steve!!