The 5G future
Telus, Bell and Rogers are racing to build the next generation of lightning-fast wireless networks that will power everything from smart cities to driverless cars. Why 5G is set to change everything
A bobsled pilot grips the handle, coils into a squat and then springs forward with her teammate, hurtling her body into the sled as it takes off down the icy track. Watching the event live on your smartphone, you see what she sees as a tiny camera captures the view from her helmet while the crew navigates twists and turns at speeds of up to 150 kilometres an hour.
That sort of in-the-moment perspective isn't available to most Olympic fans yet, but a South Korean company has been testing its potential at this month's Pyeongchang Games, using next-generation wireless technology to take viewers on a ride down ice-covered courses and give them jaw-dropping glimpses of every rotation in a figure skater's triple axel. KT Corp., the country's second largest wireless carrier, is using the Olympic backdrop to demonstrate the world's first large-scale trial deployment of 5G technology, the latest iteration of wireless networking that will support uploads of real-time high-definition video, instantly responsive re-mote control and a vast increase in the number of devices and sensors that can be connected.
Working with partners Intel, Samsung and Ericsson, KT has installed 5G-connected cameras in the ice arena, on the cross country ski track and on athletes' helmets, giving spectators at the Olympic venues the chance to follow the bobsled track in real time or view skating replays from every angle on 5G-enabled tablets.
The demonstration won't last beyond the Games – 5G isn't ready for permanent deployment yet – but wireless carriers, equipment makers and governments around the world are pushing hard to prepare for it.
Back home in Canada, Alexander Brock, Rogers Communications Inc.'s senior vice-president of network technology and IT, is visibly excited as he describes the benefits of the groundbreaking technology. Standing in the Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto, where the stadium is playing host to a 5G field test, Mr. Brock conjures a world with no limit to what innovators can create with lightning fast speeds, almost zero lag time and vast data capacity.
Baseball fans at the concrete dome where the Blue Jays play could one day experience the game from the point of view of the batter, as mini cameras beam a live shot of his view up to their smartphones. They could also get instant data on the speed of a pitch or a hit, watch the game from a different angle using interactive controls and see an athlete's stats superimposed on a handset's display . And that's on top of simply uploading videos, tweets and Facebook photos in the middle of a massive crowd all trying to do the same, without overloading the network.
"Think of whatever you could do in your home or the office over a wired connection: The wires are gone," Mr. Brock said in an interview from the 200-level of the Rogers Centre. "5G opens up all sorts of possibilities for applications and services we can't even dream of today because of the fact that you've essentially taken all the connectivity in a place and put it in your pocket.
"I think that opens up an enormous amount of innovation capability."
But before the 5G revolution gets under way, Canada's wireless companies have a lot of work to do. Wireless speeds in a 5G world are expected to be remarkably fast – with download rates of up to 10 gigabits a second, 10 times faster than current top-of-the-line home internet service – and the lag time between sending a message and its arrival should be reduced to almost nothing at less than one millisecond. (Such speeds would allow a consumer to download a high-definition movie in less than a second.)
To deliver that high-speed connectivity, the next generation of cellular networks will use new types of airwaves that don't travel far, meaning carriers will need to build dense webs of small cell towers – on the sides of buildings, on lampposts, even on newspaper boxes – to carry signals. The cells are roughly the size of a laptop.
Rogers has installed 88 small cells at the Rogers Centre to boost its current LTE (long-term evolution or 4G) coverage, but that, along with others it has installed elsewhere, represents only a small fraction of the extensive network it will need to support 5G service. National rivals Telus Corp. and BCE Inc. have already invested more in thousands of small cells, new radio equipment and fibre-optic networks.
All three of the big telecoms want to win this high-stakes competition for Canadian smartphone subscribers and the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) market. While they're tightlipped about how much they're spending specifically on 5G, it's clear that the costs will be extensive: A Morgan Stanley Research report last fall predicted carriers around the world will spend a projected US$225-billion on the 5G rollout by 2040. Over the next four years alone, the countries leading the way on 5G – China, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. – will spend a combined US$8-billion, according to another report by U.S. consulting firm Technology Business Research.
It's a high-stakes undertaking but the Canadian telecoms have to seize it. As cable television and home phone subscribers decline, they're counting on data-based services – wireless and home internet – for growth. And 5G technology is important because it will let carriers tap into new markets for business customers, with features that will support a vast increase in the number of connected devices and sensors.
To win the race here and remain competitive with international leaders, Canadian carriers need to build more cell sites, put new antenna and radio technology to work and redesign their core networks. They'll also need to convince the federal government to move fast to free up the airwaves needed for 5G. All three are running tests and hitting eye-popping speeds in controlled environments and right now, it's anyone's guess who will come out ahead. The only thing that's certain is the promise of 5G and the conviction that Canada doesn't want to fall behind.
THE BIG BUILD: SPECTRUM, SMALL CELLS AND FIBRE
Cell service works by sending radio signals from your smartphone – over frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum – to the antenna on a nearby cell tower. Those signals are then sent back into your wireless carrier's core network, which may be connected to the tower by a fibre-optic cable in the ground or by an over-the-air transmission to another nearby tower.
Today's networks were built using low -and medium-frequency spectrum, prized for its ability to travel long distances and penetrate into buildings. Future networks will still use those bands but they will also rely on new, much higher-frequency bands known as "millimetre-wave" spectrum .
Millimetre waves can carry huge amounts of data but they don't travel far, so 5G networks will rely on a mix of large cell towers for broad coverage as well as a web of small cell sites. These low-powered radio access nodes will be placed close together to provide speed and capacity in high-traffic areas and you'll find them both inside and on the side of buildings, on hydro poles and streetlights. With this type of spectrum, "you may need sites every 300 metres or so," says Bruce Rodin, vice-president of wireless technologies at BCE.
"The key ingredients for 5G are going to be spectrum and cell sites," Chris Pearson, president of 5G America, said in early February at an industry conference in Ottawa, adding operators will need a mix of low, medium and high-frequency spectrum.
With the Toronto Blue Jays' home opener around the corner, the Rogers Centre is the perfect place to put small-cell technology to work. "You've got 50,000 people – on a good day – a lot of concrete, lots of things that can interfere and multiple frequencies, so we actually use this as a test bed for things," Mr. Brock says.
"Getting experience in small cells is vital," Mr. Brock says. Cell sites close together run the risk of interfering with each other, so operators must experiment with the right level of power to send to each site, and which frequencies to use, he says, adding that whether the equipment is indoors or outdoors can also affect how the sites interact. Rogers has installed 88 small cells at the stadium to provide more capacity for its LTE network and is also running a 5G test there through a partnership with Ericsson, Qualcomm and Samsung.
"5G is as much about real estate as it is about technology," Mr. Brock says, adding that it won't all be as simple as the Rogers Centre, which the company owns . "Just finding the right locations for small cells and getting to them – that's going to be the challenge."
Canadian carriers say they will begin deploying 5G mobile services around 2020, but they are already aggressively improving their current networks with advances that will help lay the groundwork for the next generation. So-called "LTE advanced" technology uses new radio techniques (with dozens of tiny antennas), straps different bands of spectrum together to improve efficiency and also relies on small cells to increase speed and fill in capacity in high-traffic areas where customers experience poor service.
"We're already cell-splitting and sub-dividing to really, really small sites that give such incredible coverage," said BCE chief executive officer George Cope in an interview. His company recently revealed plans to install 4,000 more small cell sites in its network this year, to have 10,000 by the end of the year. In November, the company struck an agreement with Metro News to install mini wireless towers on newspaper boxes, calling it a cost-effective way to use existing real estate. "Those small cells really are for our LTE-advanced service, but it sets us up for 5G," Mr. Cope said.
But even those webs of small cells running new bands of spectrum won't work without a strong core network to back them up. To deliver on the promises of 5G, Canadian carriers are largely counting on fibre-optic networks for "backhaul," or the connection between the cell site and the broader network.
Fibre-optic cables send signals along strands of glass at the speed of light and those tiny strands can carry huge amounts of data. "Think about the capacity in a single fibre: it's terabits per second," Damian Plotz, vice-president of technology strategy and networks at Shaw Communications Inc., said at the Ottawa conference. One terabit per second is about 1,000 times faster than one gigabit per second, which in itself is about the download speed of top home internet services. "Fibre is absolutely critical to 5G."
(Shaw is still working on its LTE network and has not shared its plans for 5G. The company did not agree to an interview. )
Canada already has far more fibre in its wireless networks than many parts of the world. That's due in part to a battle for market share among the country's biggest telecom companies, which offer both residential and wireless services. To compete with each other, that's meant they've had to invest in wiring up neighbourhoods to sell faster internet and TV services as well as building cell towers for good wireless coverage. BCE and Telus were originally telephone utilities, which had slower copper wiring than their cable rivals Rogers and Shaw, who gained an edge in home broadband service. Over the past several years, the two telcos have both spent billions extending fibre-optic service directly to customers' homes to catch up.
The main goal of those labour-intensive fibre builds – tearing up city streets and trampling through gardens – was to keep residential TV and internet subscribers away from their rivals. But both BCE and Telus say their wireless operations have also benefited from more fibre throughout the networks. They expect that to continue.
"Without that fibre, the concept of 5G just doesn't work," says BCE's Mr. Cope.
"Whether it's LTE or 5G, you still have to have fibre deployed deep, deep, deep into your access network, and that's where the big costs are," said Telus CEO Darren Entwistle on an investor call in early February.
Telus built its first small cell in 2012 and now has more small cell sites than the traditional "macro" sites you would find on towers or rooftops, says Eros Spadotto, executive vice-president of technology strategy. "We recognized that's where the technology is heading."
Rogers, meanwhile, had been Canada's leader on LTE, but in recent years, the company pulled back on network investments. It relied more on microwave transmission than fibre and built fewer small cells than its rivals. Third-party tests over the past year have shown that Telus and Bell regularly rank well ahead of Rogers on maximum and average download speeds as well as latency.
When Joe Natale became CEO last April and took stock of the situation, he began ramping up technology spending in the second half of the year (while trimming expenses elsewhere in the company). Rogers spent almost $200-million more on its wireless and cable networks in 2017 than it did in 2016. And the company plans to spend between $214-million and $414-million more on overall capital expenditures this year compared with last.
Speaking with investors in January, Mr. Natale says the company has now, "accelerated the move to 4.5G LTE-advanced technology while setting the stage for a smooth evolution to 5G." He said Rogers was able to buy the latest equipment at better prices, is building more small cell sites and, on its cable network side, is "driving fibre deeper into our access network."
Telus appears to be most prepared for 5G thanks to the work it has already put in on building small cells and improving its core network. "Telus management had the foresight to embark on its generational fibre and small cell investment even before 2015," Scotia's Mr. Fan wrote in a report and RBC Securities analyst Drew McReynolds says the company now has less spending ahead of it, thanks to its "industry-leading 5G preparation."
BCE and Telus also have the advantage of a network sharing agreement – they share the radio access portion of their networks and each one is responsible for roughly half the country – and the cost efficiencies that brings will help them even more in the shift to 5G, says Scotia Capital analyst Jeff Fan. They have also been more public than Rogers about the results of their 5G tests and have started to talk about industries they hope to target with the service, with Telus pursuing the health care business and BCE looking at agriculture and smart city applications.
But there is still time for Rogers to catch up, says Desjardins Securities' Maher Yaghi: The company is using strong profit growth to "make added investments in its networks in order to be well positioned for the upcoming 5G rollout in two years."
HOW WILL 5G CHANGE THE WORLD AT LARGE?
As Canadian carriers battle to roll out 5G networks, the new technology has the potential to dramatically change our world, going far beyond streaming YouTube videos faster or posting concert selfies in a flash.
"I'm just not sure consumers are going to pay extra for 5G," says Mr. Fan, adding smartphone subscribers already get good speeds on LTE networks. "I think 5G will be more about vertical solutions and business applications," he says, pointing to agriculture, the health care industry and smart cities as potential clients.
"When I talk to people actually developing 5G, the stuff that they are most excited about is not phones. It's things like autonomous vehicles – self-driving cars and trucks – smart cities and sensors," says Sascha Segan, lead mobile analyst for PCMag. "5G is going to be able to connect a lot more tiny devices to the network more cheaply and easily, so you're going to be able to put more sensors on things around a city and be able to have the city's services respond more intelligently."
By 2023, Ericsson predicts, there will be 20 billion IoT-connected devices, up from about seven billion in 2017.
Take cycling to work, for example. A long commute becomes a lot easier with heated bike paths to keep your route clear of snow. Add retractable, all-weather canopies that glide out to cover the path when it rains and you're more likely to stick with your ride instead of taking the car or cramming into a crowded bus.
That vision of urban living – one that entices people to spend time outside – could become reality for a dilapidated section of Toronto port lands if Alphabet Inc.'s plans for "Sidewalk Toronto" come to pass. Google Inc.'s parent company wants to install sensors on just about everything in its Quayside development, which is starting with a US$50-million investment in planning for a 12-acre district along the waterfront and could expand to a much larger project in the surrounding 750 acres.
Beyond an easier bike ride to work, smart cities will also use sensors to monitor traffic flow and adjust signals as needed, help drivers find vacant parking spots instead of burning gas circling around and turn streetlights on only when needed to save energy.
Sidewalk Labs says it will use WiFi and LTE cellular networks for its smart neighbourhood, but as 5G networks develop, they will play a key role in the expansion of IoT. Today's network connections "are often not reliable or fast enough or drain too much power," according to a Morgan Stanley Research report, but 5G technology is expected to improve that.
As the number of connected devices balloons, it will be an important business opportunity for wireless carriers looking for new growth amid a maturing smartphone market. The number of IoT devices connected over cellular networks is still relatively small but Ericsson projects it will increase at a compound annual rate of 26 per cent by 2023, compared with just 3 per cent for the growth in mobile phones.
Carriers are already tapping into that market, with BCE, for example, supporting an IoT pilot project with the Henry of Pelham vineyard in Ontario's Niagara region. Sensors connected to BCE's wireless network will allow the winery to remotely monitor temperature and moisture levels, with the goal of healthier plants, lower operating costs and better wine.
For the Henry of Pelham pilot, BCE had to customize part of its LTE network to provide low-speed data over wide areas with high power efficiency. In a 5G world, that will become easier and more common thanks to "network slicing" – carriers will build one main network and use software to create virtual "slices" dedicated to supporting specific use cases. "In some ways it's a precursor to 5G," says BCE's Mr. Rodin, of the wine country trial.
Many IoT sensors don't need to send much data but they do depend on long battery life. That means that part of a 5G network can be dedicated to wide-coverage, low-bandwidth connections – just enough to send small pieces of information – and use less complicated computing equipment to lower the battery demands.
But other applications in a 5G world will depend far more on increased speed and data capacity as well as virtually instantaneous real-time responses. Remote control drones could begin doing the dangerous work of monitoring hard-to-reach parts of the power grid, for example, taking the place of workers flying in helicopters.
To transmit high-def video, a drone will need a high-capacity network and to respond to controls in real time, it will depend on ultra-low latency and reliability. Network slicing will let 5G operators create dedicated channels with those specific functions.
Low latency and super-high capacity networks will also enable futuristic technology, such as remote surgery, remote-controlled robots for mines and factories and, yes, driverless cars and trucks. Today's autonomous vehicles operate using internal sensors to detect what's happening around the car. But once connected to 5G networks – with latency low enough to support instantaneous decisions – they'll be able to react to road conditions as a whole, not just what their own vehicle detects. "When they drop off that larger 5G network, autonomous vehicles will be back to using their own eyes and ears, but when they're on the larger network, it will be like they have superpowers," Mr. Segan says.
Architects and engineers could use augmented reality applications to project previously two-dimensional drawings onto a wall in 3-D. Businesses outside of urban centres that struggle to get reliable broadband could some day rely on 5G networks. It will "change the way businesses work. Because essentially we're removing all of the impediments," Rogers's Mr. Brock says.
CANADA'S VUE D'ENSEMBLE FOR 5G?
South Korea already has the fastest LTE networks worldwide, so its Olympic-sized push to get to 5G first makes sense. Japan and China are also working hard to be 5G pioneers and on this side of the world, the two biggest U.S. carriers, AT&T and Verizon, plan to roll out fixed wireless 5G – which is used for home internet service – later this year. Canadian carriers, which already have fast, fibre-based or cable home broadband networks, are more interested in 5G for mobile service. But even Sprint Corp., the fourth-largest U.S. provider, says it plans to launch 5G wireless service by early next year.
Canada's own LTE networks are the fastest of the G8 countries, close to the top of world speed rankings, and also offer broad coverage – independent testing agency OpenSignal recently called the country an "LTE powerhouse – and the industry is well positioned to be competitive in the race for 5G. The world's biggest equipment vendors are testing their equipment here – Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia all have offices clustered near the federal government's own Communications Research Centre in Ottawa.
Canadians also pay among the highest rates in the world for cell service, leaving Bell, Rogers and Telus with healthy balance sheets and the three have shown their willingness to invest in big, sometimes risky capital projects. But their ability to move fast on 5G will be contingent on getting their hands on the airwaves to make it work and some are concerned the federal government is not moving quickly enough to release crucial bands of spectrum.
"I think the Canadian carriers are a little behind the leaders when it comes to 5G, because your regulators have been slow to make important spectrum available to them," says PCMag's Mr. Segan, who has conducted annual tests on Canadian networks, tracking speed and latency.
The government is close to releasing final rules on an auction for radio waves in the 600-megahertz frequency, which is low-band spectrum that will help provide wide coverage in 5G networks, and it has an active consultation under way on millimetre-wave spectrum. But spectrum consultations can take months or years to wrap up and there still is no firm timeline of when auctions will be held or even in which order the spectrum will be released or reassessed.
Critics says Canada is not moving quickly enough on one particular band that is emerging as key for 5G deployments. Spectrum in the range of 3.5 gigahertz is crucial for making the service work properly, as it offers a blend of capacity and reach.
"The rest of the world is focused on 3.5 gig. It will be the primary 5G band around the planet," says Telus's Mr. Spadotto. "When is 5G meaningful? It's only meaningful when it's widespread and the tool to deploy it on a widespread basis is 3.5 gig spectrum." He worries the speed of "technology adoption is now greater than the bureaucracy can actually maintain."
The situation is complicated by the fact that BCE and Rogers already own a chunk of the airwaves in the 3.5 GHz band through a joint venture called Inukshuk while Xplornet Communications Inc. and other rural internet providers use this spectrum to provide high-speed broadband outside of cities. (The band is not presently designated for mobile use in Canada.)
The federal government referenced the band (as well as nearby frequencies) in an October "spectrum outlook," and bureaucrats at Innovation, Science and Economic Development, the department responsible for regulating the airwaves, are well aware of the intense interest in it. However, ISED has yet to launch a formal consultation with a specific proposal on how to use the 3.5 GHz band. A recent Qualcomm report showed out of 11 of the world's most developed countries, only Canada is not at least consulting on a plan for spectrum in this range.
"3.5 is probably going to be the workhorse for 5G and nothing has started," says Johanne Lemay, co-president of telecom consultancy Lemay-Yates Associates Inc. "It does seem that we do not have a real vue d'ensemble, if you want, as to how we will use spectrum to deploy 5G," she adds, referencing a French expression for "big picture."
"On the technology front, I think Canadian carriers have what it takes to deploy this. They're not lacking in skills and resources," Ms. Lemay says, adding. "It's not clear at all that when the technology is available – let's say we're talking 2020 – that there will be spectrum available for this in Canada."
But Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains says he understands that the 3.5 GHz band "will be crucial" – ISED included it in the 2018 to 2022 spectrum outlook to get feedback "from all parties on the potential of this" and wants to get it right. "We're actively engaged and we think we're headed in the right direction."
The minister adds that while certain 5G bands of spectrum may not be commercially available yet, the government has a short-term deployment licence model which allows temporary access to spectrum to run tests. "We're providing innovators with the ability to access 5G spectrum. … There's actually quite a bit of activity and initiative by companies coming to Canada."
As carriers build thousands of new cell sites to put new spectrum to work, they say they also need municipalities and utility companies to clear a path to placing antennas and radio equipment on buildings and hydro poles.
"Today there's really a patchwork of regulatory requirements and restrictions," David Watt, senior vice-president of regulatory affairs at Rogers said at the Ottawa conference. "A lot of people look at our industry as a very wealthy industry and would like to charge us very significant fees. That's really not going to work due to the number of sites that have to be deployed."
"Municipalities need to view us as infrastructure partners, not as a cash cow."
Jessie Adcock, chief information officer for the city of Vancouver, replied, saying many municipalities are "trying to reinvent their role in this space," looking for flexible ways to work with telecom providers and encourage investment in technology that can lead to smarter cities. But it's incumbent on carriers to approach the issue with a similar attitude. "I think we have to realize that we're creating a bit of friction and tension that isn't necessary."
In the meantime, Rogers's Mr. Brock says 5G is "an evolutionary journey, it's not a point-in-time destination."
"I don't think there will be a point in time where you can say, '5G is done,' or '5G is turned on.' 5G will be turned on across the country in different places at different times to meet different requirements."