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A pedestrian walks past the Rogers building in Toronto on April 22, 2014.

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Rogers Communications Inc. is beginning to roll out fifth-generation wireless networks in the downtown cores of several major Canadian cities as the country’s telecom sector gears up for the global race to deploy 5G technology.

Rogers is the first of Canada’s Big Three telecom companies to announce its plan for 5G deployment. On Wednesday, the company said it has switched on its fifth-generation wireless networks in downtown Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, although consumers will not be able to access them until they have 5G-capable smartphones, which are expected to be available in the coming months.

While Rogers is using equipment from Swedish supplier Ericsson in its 5G networks, rivals BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. have yet to select a vendor. They are awaiting the outcome of a national security review that will determine whether Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. will be permitted to supply equipment for Canada’s 5G networks.

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BCE said on Wednesday that it’s “ready to launch similar early 5G service” this year as 5G devices come onto the market. Chief executive officer Mirko Bibic said earlier this month that BCE will be “ready to move ahead with 5G in any scenario."

However, it could be a while before Canadians can experience the benefits of the latest iteration of wireless technology, which is expected to provide faster speeds, reduced lag time and a significant increase in the number of devices and sensors that can be connected.

“It’s going to be a long rollout, and certainly a lot of the capabilities that people get hyped up about are likely several years away, just in terms of having the network in place that can enable the type of speeds that people are fired up about," Edward Jones analyst Dave Heger said.

Rogers will initially use 2.5 GHz spectrum – wireless airwaves that deliver communications services – in its 5G networks. Later this year, it will also begin using 600 MHz spectrum, which can carry wireless data across longer distances and through dense urban areas.

The company said it plans to extend the rollout to 20 other markets by the end of the year.

“We’re expanding the coverage as we speak,” chief technology officer Jorge Fernandes said, adding that the deployment of 5G will be a phased process. In the early stages, “people will not necessarily see much of a difference,” he said.

Proponents say the technology will be able to power everything from smart cities to remote surgery to driverless cars. Rogers president and CEO Joe Natale called it “the biggest technological evolution since the launch of wireless,” and said in a statement that the new networks will “fuel entire industries.”

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South of the border, the deployment of 5G has fallen short of expectations. Mr. Heger attributes that partly to the fact that some U.S. carriers have been using only the lower frequencies of spectrum, such as 600 or 800 MHz, in their initial deployments – ones that typically don’t provide much of a speed advantage over 4G networks.

“The [Rogers] rollout being at 2.5 GHz is a positive,” Mr. Heger said. “The initial service that people in these areas will see should at least be a little bit better than they have at 4G."

But many of the grandiose promises of 5G technology won’t be fulfilled until wireless networks start employing much higher-frequency bands known as “millimetre-wave” spectrum, which will require installing a vast number of so-called small cells, Mr. Heger added.

Small cells, or microcells, are each about the size of a shoebox, and tens of thousands of them will have to be installed within a few hundred metres of each other on structures such as hydro towers, bus shelters and lampposts. That process is under way.

Desjardins analyst Maher Yaghi said he expects all of the major telecom companies will start 5G in dense urban centres before expanding to rural areas.

“We believe the speed of the rollout and the eventual expected coverage is highly dependent on continued support from government by way of a regulatory environment that encourages investments,” Mr. Yaghi said in a note to clients.

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Also on Wednesday, Rogers announced it will collaborate with other carriers as part of a global 5G forum aimed at accelerating the deployment of the wireless technology. Other forum members include U.S.-based Verizon, British multinational Vodafone Group PLC, South Korean KT Corp. and Latin American provider America Movil, among others.

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