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The fifth generation of telecommunication technology will make our online lives faster and bring new products and services to the fore.MARHARYTA MARKO/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

The fifth generation of mobile communications, or 5G, coming to Canada promises greater speed, capacity and reliability, making possible new digital products and services that are expected to change the way we live and work.

With the COVID-19 pandemic increasing society’s reliance on wireless networks for everything from pop-up home offices to online education and remote medical appointments, the 5G platform will offer faster downloads, make businesses more efficient and spur the move to connected devices and smart communities.

“This opens to door to many new applications,” says Pierre Boucher, general manager of Innovation ENCQOR Inc., a partnership between the governments of Canada, Québec and Ontario, as well as five industry players, intended to foster 5G development.

The five-year initiative includes a series of “hubs” where pre-commercial 5G testbeds are available for use by small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and academics designing technologies in fields from public health and autonomous vehicles to the control of machines in homes, industry, agriculture and forestry.

Mr. Boucher, an electrical engineer who is the former head of research and innovation at Ericsson Canada Inc., has seen the impact of each 10-year generation of network transformation, beginning with the introduction of 2G mobile phones in the 1980s.

ENCQOR recently invited SMEs and researchers in the context of the current health emergency to develop 5G technologies that “make us collectively stronger in times of crisis,” he says. “5G has the potential to help, that’s for sure.”

He notes such solutions could begin running on current 4G networks and evolve to use super-fast 5G networks, which represents a challenge as well as a considerable technological leap forward for business and society.

5G signals will run over new radio frequencies, which requires updates to radios and other equipment on cell towers. Network carriers must install small cell sites, about the size of pizza boxes, to light poles, walls and towers, in close proximity to one another, to allow for broad coverage. Consumers will also require 5G-enabled devices to surf or communicate via these new networks.

Jason Lee, program manager of the advanced technology platform at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, which houses a 5G testbed under ENCQOR that’s available to some 175 early-stage companies, notes that 5G will allow for many new uses that “don’t exist yet,” given its unique qualities. “The network capabilities are literally advanced by an order of magnitude.”

Transmission speeds of 5G are expected to be 10 to 100 times those of its 4G LTE network successor. This accelerated data rate will allow a two-hour movie to be downloaded over the Internet in fewer than 10 seconds, for example, compared with taking about seven minutes using existing technology.

With 5G’s massively higher capacity, it’s possible to link up a large number of devices, such as connecting hundreds or even thousands of sensors in a manufacturing plant, farmer’s field or forest floor to monitor conditions.

Latency, the time it takes for a cell phone or other device to make a request of a server and get a response, is reduced from as much as several seconds to less than one millisecond under 5G, improving the quality and reliability of video images to allow for augmented-reality and virtual-reality applications, such as the beginnings of robotic surgery. Less lag time also means less downtime, reducing energy consumption and allowing battery-powered devices to run significantly longer, which is a boon in remote locations, Mr. Lee says.

Networks under 5G will be able to be “sliced” for particular uses and performance requirements, he says. To make devices ever-smaller and faster, part of their processing capacity can be housed in nearby data centres, a technique known as edge computing, or in so-called distributed clouds.

“There’s still a lot that needs to be done,” Mr. Lee says, with much of the build-out of 5G networks expected in the next three to five years. Meanwhile, it’s important for applications and products to be created, requiring a “circle of collaboration” that includes major institutions and startups alike, he says. “Innovators are a very important piece of this puzzle.”

Philippa King, director of digital economy technologies for the Ontario Centres of Excellence, a partner in ENCQOR, says it’s especially interesting to see how developers are “pivoting” with the COVID-19 outbreak and looking at new ways to use 5G.

For example, a company working on making a heads-up-display for firefighters with built-in heat recognition is now looking into whether it could be used to detect someone with elevated body temperature in a public space, such as an airport lounge.

“It’s incredible what people come up with,” says Ms. King, who predicts that such thinking will “grow Canadian-strong companies and let us compete in the world at the forefront of 5G technologies.”

Companies are also using the 5G testbed to improve remote connectivity technologies, which could allow for today’s virtual business meetings, cocktail hours and even sports events to happen in new ways, such as by hologram. The sporting application is to be demonstrated during the Olympics Games next summer in Tokyo.

Ms. King says there’s also important work being done on the technology backbone necessary to manage the massive amounts of data flowing through networks, which can cause the sort of congestion and quality issues apparent to family members working, studying and streaming entertainment online in the same household today.

While 5G is just getting started, research is underway in Canadian laboratories on a sixth-generation mobile network that would have almost no lag time and instantaneous data-transfer speeds, she says. This 6G platform is expected to emerge in 2030 and beyond.