What is all this hype about?
The acronym 5G refers to the fifth generation of wireless network technology for mobile phones and connected devices. Each new G marks a radical change in the nature of the data being carried over wireless communications networks, be it speed, capacity, or latency.
The first-generation network was analog, i.e. it transmitted the entire signal—not digitized—and only allowed voice calls. There were no common protocols for all networks, making it a rather heterogeneous generation. Despite that, GPRS was still in use until 1990, and the world’s telephone stock was around 20 million. The second-generation (2G) was already digital technology and under a standard protocol: GSM. With 2G, it was possible to send text messages for the first time. Introducing 3G increased the data transmission rate and its capacity. In addition, it provided multimedia support, allowing video and photos to be sent by message—the failed MMS—and integration with the Internet, TCP, and IP protocols. The current fourth-generation extended the bandwidth and reduced resource cost.
Recent tests have seen 5G increasing download rate up to 10 times faster, allowing you to load an entire film in less than ten seconds. And the theoretical framework states that the download speed can increase of up to 20 gigabits (Gb) per second, 200 times quicker than with current 4G technology. Cloud services that you use everyday working under Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure will work swifter. But there is a catch. What makes 5G so much faster? The use of shorter frequencies. The lower the frequency, the greater the bandwidth and speed. Unfortunately, these higher frequencies are not yet available, as we will discuss in a moment.
So we don’t have those amazing speeds for now, but here is the part where you understand that 5G is so much more than that.
5G provides as well a considerable higher connection density, from a standard of 2,000 devices per square kilometre to one million. It allows extensive machine-to-machine communications and more ambitious Internet of Things projects involving millions, even billions of appliances connected without human intervention. Introducing 5G has the potential to transform contemporary mechanical and technical processes in applications that range from agriculture to manufacturing and from business services to transportation.
But the ultimate game-changer will be latency—the time it takes for a device to make a request from a remote server and obtain a response. This will decrease to less than one millisecond, virtually zero, whereas the standard for current technology is 50 milliseconds. These extremely reliable low latency communications will permit real-time control of devices like industrial robotics and self-driving but safer vehicles and transport networks. And here is where it gets really interesting. The average human reaction time to a visual stimulus is around 250 milliseconds or one-quarter of a second. With good training, some people can get down to 200 milliseconds. Now imagine that the computer inside your car could “see” and react 200 times faster than you. Enhanced security in self-driving cars will be one of the major advances of 5G, but not the only exciting use case that benefits from low latency. Remote surgery interventions are another one that was not possible until now because of the precision in the feedback we require when we are controlling a scalpel from abroad. During the Mobile World Congress 2019, Antonio de Lacy performed the first remote surgical intervention with the new technology. 5G will open up a whole new world in Health, where remote medical care, surgery, and treatments are available.
Shall I go for it?
In Canada, it is already possible to sign up for a 5G cell phone contract through Rogers, Telus, and Bell. But a smart question to ask is whether we are better off upgrading now or later. The answer invariably depends of course on each one’s personal use and early adopters will always be so, but the general truth is that probably it is a bit too early to buy a 5G phone in Canada right at the moment. Canadians won’t see a full nationwide coverage by 5G cell towers effort to start until at least next year while at the same time, Canada’s 4G LTE mobile performance lies among the fastest in the world. Let us examine why.
The number of user cases being enabled by 5G is manyfold: virtual reality in real-time, autonomous and connected vehicles like cars or agricultural machinery, emergency response, robotics, gaming, healthcare wearables, smart metering for waste collection, parking or snow removal, crop and soil management, smart grids, and so on. So even before mass consumer use is fully established, deployment is likely to initially target local industries and governments. Some Canadian public agencies are using funded programs to spur innovation in technological solutions that assist urban and rural districts. For example, the Smart Cities Challenge launched in 2018 with over 200 communities participating and whose first prize of 50$M CAD was won by the City of Montréal with a project innovating in mobility and access to food. The project promises more efficient and sustainable transportation alternatives to reduce automobile usage. If you want to learn more about this project, please visit makingmtl.ca/challenge.
These amplified opportunities are the essential reason why the distribution of 5G will be different than it was for its aforementioned ancestors. The aim during the past years was to extend connectivity to reach to a larger amount of citizens over a broader geographical extension. The users were mostly B2C consumers and the intention was to provide them all with a service. Today Canada has a 99% 4G network coverage, but only a decent 5G network in some of the main cities —Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver. And this deployment will take more into account the B2B market and the different use cases that will benefit from it, depending on whether they are urban, rural, for personal or agricultural businesses purposes, and so on. Most likely, the total adoption of 5G is going to take between 5 and 10 years. GSMA estimates that around half of mobile communications will be 5G by 2025.
As we said, 5G is more than just a novel generation of mobile technology. 4G’s speed and capacity drove us into platform business models, the app economy and expanded the use of mobile video. But imagine what can be done with that increase in traffic capacity and network efficiency, a 50-fold decrease in end-to-end latency, and those speeds in combination with other developing technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, and Quantum Computing. While the 4G decade was identified with the ubiquitous availability of the network for human users and the convergence of tools into a smartphone, the 5G era will be marked by the divergence towards a boundless number of non-human devices that will form the Internet of Things. Huge benefits will come not just for consumers but also for businesses and infrastructure applications.
Regulation, jobs and the Canadian government's role
At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that we are not getting the full 5G speed increase experience because still, we cannot get access to the higher frequencies. Compared to its predecessors, 5G works on an ampler range of frequencies. This is wonderful news because through this greater use of the radio spectrum far more appliances will be able to connect to the internet at the same time. It also increases the coverage area and helps to locate devices with amazing accuracy.
The low band operates the 600 Mhz frequency and has a greater range, so it is useful for large coverage areas and rural customers. Mid-band frequencies lay in the 2.5-3.7 GHz area and are currently shared by 5G and 4G LTE broadcasts, but tests constantly give 5G an advantage of around twice the speed compared to 4G LTE working on the same frequencies. All these mid bands are usually grouped under the popular term “sub-6” 5G and they are already available in the US with AT&T and T-Mobile, while Verizon is set for the end of 2020. In Canada, all three providers are presently performing on a Sub-6 band, the n66 (called as well the Extended AWS) in the case of Telus and Bell, and the n38, a 2.5Ghz band, in the case of Rogers. The government of Canada has announced a six-month postponement of its 3.5 GHz spectrum auction process, to allow the telecommunications industry to maintain its focus on providing essential services to Canadians during the coronavirus pandemic. The auction is now scheduled to start on June 15, 2021.
And finally, you have the crown jewel, the high band frequencies of 25-39 GHz, also known as the millimeter-wave spectrum, that enables the fastest data transfers. Those won’t likely be available in Canada until at least 2022. And here the country is lagging a bit regarding its southern neighbors. While Canada appeared to be on track to release its Millimetre Wave in 2021 before the coronavirus pandemic, the United States already began auctioning at the beginning of 2019.
Despite this drawback from the pandemic, the deployment of 5G technology could provide significant economic benefits in Canada. For example, according to a report by Accenture and published by the CWTA, 5G could contribute to the creation of one-quarter of a million permanent jobs by 2026 and an annual increase in Canada’s GDP of nearly $40 billion. Many sectors will benefit and agriculture, energy, and transportation are those most likely to benefit most. Saskatchewan will see up to $1.2 billion potential GDP increase because of rural broadband penetration and a huge saving in pesticide use in its Primary Sector. However, according to the OECD, the extent of the benefits resulting from 5G technology will depend on how quickly it is deployed and adopted, as well as the ability of the regulatory environment to adapt. You have guessed: there is an enormous challenge for the government when it comes to regulation and public policy.
Will 5G replace my home broadband cable?
The quick answer is: maybe, but surely not yet. This is a tricky question to deal with because there is not only a technological but an economical variable to factor in. We won’t know the answer until 5G is fully deployed. But it is a good excuse to compare technologies.
Before going into more detail, it is convenient to differentiate between 5G and the 5G WiFi networks already integrated into many routers. This WiFi 5 connection is so named because it operates in a 5 GHz band, distinct from former WiFi networks. There is even another evolution of the Wi-Fi standard, the Wi-Fi 6. And Wi-Fi 6 and mobile 5G are very similar in most metrics including latency, bandwidth, and connection density.
Where they are not equal is in economic terms, where Wi-Fi is much better.
Think about infrastructure. For home access, a B2C customer would need a 5G router to connect. For these customers to invest, 5G needs to support similar data rates. And the de facto data rate of mobile networks is lower than their theoretical maximum data rates. Getting access to the maximum speed of the higher frequencies requires that your home lies very close to a 5G transmitter. So, although 5G supports up to 10 Gbps, its de facto data rate could get as low as 200 Mbps.
A second difference is that all mobile networks (from GPRS to 5G) use licensed spectrum bands. To use them, private companies like Rogers or Bell have to acquire it and pay a fee to the government. In addition, to reach users, these companies have to build a costly infrastructure to provide coverage. Mobile carriers need to limit our personal data usage and charge us monthly for this restricted service. That monthly price is perfectly valid for mobile users for a reason: we take advantage of mobile data only when we do not have access to Wi-Fi networks, but we continue to use our conventional Wi-Fi at home. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, makes use of unlicensed spectrum bands, free bands that allow you to send relatively weak signals without having to pay for it. Thus, any cheap router with a pair of antennas can give a Wi-Fi signal that can easily reach 50 or 100 meters outdoors, perfect for signalling our home.
So, for now, Wi-Fi has some economical advantages very difficult to overcome.
But the current maximum cable speed installed in most homes lies around 1 Gbps. There will come the time when 5G can provide real speeds higher than that, and to upgrade cable speeds to those offered by 5G would require connecting every house to the network with its own fiber. So broadband will encounter a similar infrastructure investment cost.
Eventually, we might get to a point where 5G is economically more convenient.
Moreover, we are developing ways to overcome these problems. Massive MIMOs use as many antennas to create multiple simultaneous data connections between devices. Edge computing enables more computing and data processing is done in the mobile towers rather than transmitting back through backbones to data centers far away. With the development of these features, 5G will get stronger day after day to eventually replace cable broadband. We might end up with a situation where heavy internet users prefer cable broadband for a reliable, high rate of data transfer; and remote or rural areas use 5G because it is a simpler solution than connecting every building to the fiber network again. Public WiFi networks will too gradually become a rarity as 5G connections make their way.