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Rogers Communications Inc. is launching standalone 5G wireless networks in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto.

The rollout makes the company the first of the large Canadian telecoms to introduce the standalone service.

Initial deployments of fifth-generation wireless service have relied on installing 5G-capable radios on top of existing 4G network backbones. Canada’s large wireless carriers – Rogers, Telus Corp. and BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada – all used this approach to launch early iterations of 5G service this year.

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To reap the full benefits of the new generation of wireless technology – including much faster upload and download speeds, a significant reduction in lag time and the ability to power smart cities and driverless cars – telecom providers will need to build new, standalone 5G core networks. (The core can be considered the brain of a telecom network.)

The standalone 5G networks Rogers launched on Wednesday were built with gear from Swedish supplier Ericsson. However, wireless customers won’t see improvements to their service until the next generation of 5G-capable devices arrives; the 5G smartphones currently available in Canada, including the latest version of Apple’s iPhone, are only compatible with non-standalone 5G service and 4G networks.

Rogers was the first to start rolling out non-standalone 5G service, in January. It is now available in 160 communities across the country.

Analysts have described the race to 5G as highly competitive. Bell and Telus, which share the radio access portion of their networks, launched initial 5G services in June.

“We need to be the first ones to get the [new] devices on the network,” Luciano Ramos, senior vice-president of network development and core engineering at Rogers, said in an interview. “That’s a competitive advantage.”

Being first will help attract wireless customers, Mr. Ramos said, but will also allow Rogers to work with businesses as they look for ways to use 5G to improve their operations.

“A lot of these use cases and business opportunities have not been developed or created yet,” Mr. Ramos said. “Being leaders puts us in a great position to talk to customers and work together with customers and our partners in the innovation world to drive these business opportunities.”

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It is still relatively early in the years-long 5G journey, said David Everingham, chief technology officer at Ericsson Canada.

“This is an important milestone, but there’s another slew of important milestones that are going to come next year and the year after to continue to make 5G in Canada live up to the potential that we all think it has,” Mr. Everingham said. Ericsson is also supplying gear for Telus and Bell’s fifth-generation wireless networks.

In previous iterations of wireless technology, a national wireless network would typically have a small number of cores, perhaps two or three, housed in large data-centre buildings.

“In 5G, the concept kind of evolves,” Mr. Ramos said. “You can have multiple cores in different parts of the network to support the traffic patterns, to deploy and support the technology capabilities that you’re trying to get.”

Having multiple cores closer to users will drastically reduce lag time, referred to in the industry as latency, and is expected to enable new applications, from mobile gaming to remote surgery.

Some analysts had predicted that Canadian carriers wouldn’t launch standalone 5G networks until 2022 or even 2023.

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“I think maybe the analysts underestimated the pace of 5G, and the appetite of players in the market to really invest early and take a leadership position, both for their own competitive reason and to really drive the benefits that can be seen in a larger economic context,” Mr. Everingham said, pointing out that only four other standalone networks have been launched globally.

Other telecoms that have launched standalone 5G networks are T-Mobile in the United States, Australia’s Telstra, Britain’s Vodafone and China Telecom.

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