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5G technology will help unleash the potential of smart cities and the Internet of Things.metamorworks/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Imagine a city where autonomous vehicles communicate with traffic lights and on-the-ground sensors to clear traffic jams.

A 10-per-cent drop in commuter travel time could increase productivity that would boost GDP by $270-million in Vancouver and $535-million in Montreal, according to a study for the Canadian Wireless and Telecommunications Association (CWTA).

Or imagine a city where firefighters can arrive at the scene of a fire without waiting to track down building plans. Instead, they navigate through the structure using real-time virtual reality (VR) technology that cuts through the smoke and flames.

These are just some of the potential solutions that could come from the advancement of 5G, the next generation of cellular technology. With each new generation comes new possibilities.

“When 4G came out, I don’t think anybody predicted Uber or a lot of the different apps that came out. It is going to be something that will constantly evolve,” says Robert Ghiz, president and CEO of the CWTA. “It’s really unpredictable right now exactly what’s going to happen – but the possibilities are endless.”

5G technology is expected to be 100 times faster than the existing 4G networks in Canada, with a much lower latency rate, or lag, when sending and receiving data in real-time. It will also be able to handle a much larger number of connected devices than current networks, enabling them to speak to one another. Powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, the potential of smart cities and the Internet of Things will be unleashed.

Autonomous vehicles are one of the primary examples of the anticipated advances that will come from 5G, Mr. Ghiz says. The current 4G technology simply isn’t fast enough.

A 2019 report commissioned by the CWTA from consulting firm Accenture, titled Accelerating 5G in Canada: Benefits for Cities and Rural Communities, says industry and governments will be the first to benefit.

Healthcare will see connected ambulances, options for remote and at-home care, and wearable technology to monitor health. Smart grids will manage energy more efficiently, cutting costs and usage. Smart sensors will optimize everything from street lights to garbage removal.

“When you look at cities, being able to monitor traffic and infrastructure, plus social services such as smart ambulances or telehealth – smart health so you don’t need to go to the hospital – there are a whole lot of different things that will happen as a result of 5G,” Mr. Ghiz says.

The Accenture report estimates that smart lighting systems that dim and brighten street lights as needed could save Yellowknife alone $150,000 a year and Kingston, Ont. up to $930,000, to name just two examples.

“From our perspective, 5G is going to be a game-changer in terms of enabling some of those things which will accelerate the development of smart cities,” says Claudia Krywiak, president and CEO of the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE).

“Some of the applications – for example, related to the deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles … to the large-scale deployment of the Internet of Things – really depend on the enabling power of 5G. You can’t currently achieve that level of connectivity, that level of density and that type of latency that’s required for those applications with 4G or with 4G-plus,” Ms. Krywiak says.

OCE is funded by the province to accelerate development, commercialization and adoption of emerging technology. It’s a participant in a joint Canada-Québec-Ontario testbed for the technology known as ENCQOR, which stands for the Evolution of Networked Services through a Corridor in Québec and Ontario for Research and Innovation. The project is now live, giving hundreds of small- and medium-sized enterprises the opportunity to access the platform to develop and test new applications.

“Across Ontario, there are municipalities starting to adopt Smart City technology,” says Ms. Krywiak. “All of those types of initiatives will benefit ultimately from the deployment of 5G.”

And it’s not just large urban centres that stand to benefit. “5G presents a really great opportunity in terms of rural challenges – especially last-mile connectivity – because 5G can help bring that last mile online," Ms. Krywiak says.

Better connectivity in rural and northern communities will enable access to services such as remote medical care and agriculture, Ms. Krywiak says. A September, 2019, report, prepared for the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), says the benefits to those regions will include the ability for governments to tap technology to deliver a wider array of services further afield, as well as teleworking for remote communities and telehealth services.

The CWTA study also says smart crop-management, using sensor networks and aerial scanning, could enable targeted pesticide application that cuts use by up to 85 per cent, saving the Saskatchewan canola industry alone up to $360-million a year, while also reducing impacts on the environment and human health.

The report also suggests extended broadband coverage to rural and remote areas could increase Newfoundland and Labrador’s GDP by $430-million and Nova Scotia’s by $520-million by giving businesses access to national and global labour markets and enabling citizens to work remotely.

SmartOne Solutions Inc., a Markham, Ont.-based company involved in the ENCQOR project, has developed a platform to connect smart homes and buildings into smart communities using software that enables applications to work together. The company has made the platform available to the University of Toronto and soon to the University of Alberta, the University of Ottawa and the University of Waterloo. SmartOne has also teamed with the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute to develop the use of fall detectors and motion sensors to keep tabs on patients.

5G needs to be demystified, says Ted Maulucci, SmartOne’s president.

Yes, it’s faster, he says, but it will require twice as much infrastructure as we have today. “It’s a great technology. It’s going to enable a lot of really amazing things. But people have to understand it’s a big investment," Mr. Maulucci says. “This stuff is like your railroad. Why don’t we look at communications infrastructure in the same light.”

Mr. Maulucci says Canada needs to be strategic in building the infrastructure. Once the foundation is laid – the physical network, the software platform, the machine-learning and artificial intelligence to harness the data – then comes the exciting part.

“We can really impact what it’s like to live in communities in a real way now that we have the infrastructure pieces and that will just keep going."

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