5G moves closer to reality

From the August 2021 print edition

Recent government auctions of high-frequency transmission licenses suitable for fifth-generation (5G) cellular have attracted an unprecedented response by Canadian telcos. The high stakes reflect the strategic importance of a technology that promises blazingly fast mobile phone networks for consumers, but perhaps more important, game-changing wireless networking capabilities for businesses.

5G mo“The big play is in the enterprise business market where 5G will dovetail with a number of other technologies, including Internet of Things (IoT) and edge-based cloud computing,” says Lawrence Surtees, research vice-president, communications at IDC Canada. “It will enable not just data collection, but data analysis at the source of the data.”

And 5G will essentially become a lynchpin for the deployment of Industry 4.0-related technologies.
“5G will enable our customers to move more data at faster speeds to meet the demands of new supply chain applications such as drones for high-speed warehouse inventory and commercial deliveries,” says Paul Howarth, senior director advanced services, Rogers Communications.

How fast?
While the transmission speed of 5G is roughly 20 times faster than 4G, an even more compelling benefit for manufacturing and logistics is its low latency. This means that 5G devices can receive and respond to messages in less than 1 millisecond, compared to 50 – 70 milliseconds for 4G, making it suitable for wireless automation in industry, and eventually, for safe operation of driverless vehicles.

For manufacturers and logistics operators, however, the advantages go deeper than that. 5G has been architected to have unprecedented compatibility with other leading edge networking standards, namely Software Defined Networks (SDN) and its companion Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). This means that 5G will serve as a basis for unprecedented interoperability between apps using IoT, edge computing, augmented reality, mobile robotics and other Industry 4.0 technologies in what Surtees refers to as “the most profound development to occur in telecom in our lifetime.”

“Now you have things deployed for both wired and wireless networks running on the same architecture and ultimately, the same software,” says Surtees. “So essentially, the whole becomes greater than the parts. It’s hard to imagine how powerful the benefits might be.”

Are we there yet?
Progress on 5G was delayed by approximately a year by the pandemic. Canada is behind the US and Europe in deployment, as evidenced by the lag in assignment of licences in the 5G frequency bands – auctions in the highest of these, the mmWave frequency band, won’t take place until early 2024.
“5G will remain in the nascent stage in Canada due to commercial 5G in Canada operating
on non-standalone deployments through 2022,” wrote Surtees in the IDC report 5G Wireless Networks Status in Canada, 2021.

5G is also widely misunderstood. One technology commonly confused for it is the standard for 5GHZ wi-fi routers, which is coincidentally also called 5G. (This is being superseded by Wi-Fi 6, the latest Wi-Fi standard, which shares some architectural attributes with 5G). The second is non-standalone (NSA) 5G, which differs from true standalone (SA) 5G in that it operates in conjunction with existing 4G LTE networks. NSA 5G is not as fast and lacks some of the features of SA 5G.

Unlike earlier releases, 5G is being implemented in stages that will continue to emerge over the next few years. This is partly because 5G’s architects are engaging in unprecedented consultation with other standards bodies. Addi­tionally, 5G operates on three different frequency bands, some of which have yet to be assigned.

5G will also require enormous deployment of transmission infrastructure – because high frequency signals are subject to obstruction, the higher mmWave frequency many more transmitters than 4G.
Rogers is currently making improvements to both its 5G SA and 5G NSA networks. In December the company announced that it is beginning its rollout of “Canada’s first 5G standalone (SA) core network” which will initially serve markets in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.

“Considered the brain of the network, our 5G SA core propels us forward on our path to bring the full potential of 5G to Canadians,” said Rogers CTO Jorge Fernandes in a press release last December.
In the same release, the company announced it is expanding its 5G non-standalone network to 26 new cities in Alberta, BC, Ontario, and Quebec.

The earliest signs of 5G will be compatibility with 5G smart phones, which will support much more efficient transmission of data. Works in progress include fixed wireless access, which will deliver high-speed internet wirelessly to remote communities, and Massive IoT, which will enable wide-area IoT apps such as automated logistics through enhanced connectivity with the millions of sensors installed in industrial environments.

Rogers is engaging in pilot projects for some industrial applications, including a traffic analysis project at the City of Kelowna, BC, and automation projects with mining companies. “These are B2B applications, and they will happen as each of the B2B verticals matures, and some variables will mature more quickly than others,” said Rogers CEO Joe Natale in an earnings call in January. Significant deployment of these technologies, Natale said, is still one to two years away.

Future functionality from the mmWave frequency will allow telcos to deliver high-bandwidth coverage in dense urban environments with millions of users, including operators of autonomous vehicles.

Preparing for a 5G playing field
By the time SA 5G is fully deploy­ed in Canada, 5G-enabled B2B apps will already be up and running in the US, Europe and the Far East. To stay competitive, Canadian companies will need to ensure they have the skills and resources to meet the challenges of 5G.

For example, the higher frequency signals of both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are much more easily obstructed than 3G and 4G, and some companies will need radio engineering expertise to design their private networks. IT departments will need to upgrade their wireless strategies, and ensure they have the training and resources to handle the upcoming fusion between wired and wireless apps.

What Canadian telcos are betting on is that 5G will trigger a boom in B2B wireless deployment as businesses move forward on their Industry 4.0 visions.

“The greatest potential impact of 5G is to enable digital transformation of enterprises, which
is key to Canada’s economic prosperity,” says Surtees. “5G provides a critical market opportunity for Canadian wireless network providers to grow wireless enterprise revenue and reduce the disparity in customer segment revenue by closing the widening gap that has favoured wireless
as a preponderant consumer phenomenon.”