The federal government and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec are investing $200-million in a series of linked laboratories for 5G technology, hoping to spur the development of Canadian innovations to run on the next generation of wireless networks.
Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains announced the commitment Monday morning in Ottawa, saying a group of private partners led by Ericsson Canada will match the government funding, for a total investment of $400-million over five years.
The minister said that in his travels abroad, he has seen the role governments are playing and investments they are making, particularly in countries that are ahead of Canada on 5G, such as Japan, China, South Korea and the U.S.
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"This now will put us in the same league. This will demonstrate that we're stepping up as well," he said in an interview. "We can't sit on the sidelines. We need to make sure we're playing an active role."
"Generating and developing Canadian intellectual property is going to be key," Mr. Bains said. He said the public-private partnership to invest in linked research facilities will give an estimated 1,000 small- and medium-sized businesses access to an open-platform environment to test their technology using 5G equipment.
5G refers to the fifth generation of cellular network technology and some international wireless carriers are planning to deploy it as soon as later this year. The latest iteration of wireless technology will support much faster smartphone download speeds and almost no lag time but it is also expected to enable innovations such as autonomous vehicles, smart cities and augmented-reality applications.
The governments of Ontario and Quebec have already been working together to support 5G research and Monday's funding will support ENCQOR, a group the provinces previously targeted for investment. The two provinces and the federal government are each contributing $66.7-million and private sectors are matching those funds.
ENCQOR, which stands for the Evolution of Networked Services through a Corridor in Quebec and Ontario for Research and Innovation, is led by Ericsson Canada with participation from global tech companies Ciena Canada, CGI, IBM Canada and Thales Canada.
Canada's three national wireless carriers – Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. – are running their own 5G tests and investing in improvements to their LTE (long-term evolution or 4G) networks. However, they are not expected to begin to deploy 5G technology for commercial use until at least 2020.
South Korea, Japan and China are racing to deploy 5G networks sooner and U.S. carriers Verizon and AT&T also have plans to roll it out sooner, focusing their early efforts on "fixed wireless" applications, which would offer a substitute for home broadband service. The 5G networks will use new types of spectrum, the radio waves used to carry cellular signals, and Canada's federal government is responsible for managing spectrum as a public resource.
Ottawa has launched several consultations and is expected to release a final framework for an auction in the 600-megahertz frequency band in the coming weeks. But the government has yet to release a comprehensive timeline for when it will make new spectrum bands available to operators.
"We're still on schedule," Mr. Bains said of the government's 5G spectrum plans, adding that Canadians will benefit from a number of different types of spectrum by 2021.
He also addressed concerns raised by wireless carriers about barriers to deploying 5G networks quickly. The new spectrum 5G can carry a lot of data but cannot travel far, meaning operators will need to install thousands more small-cell sites, which are smaller, low-power versions of cell towers. This makes real estate extremely important and carriers will need permission to build their equipment on streetlamps, the sides of buildings and billboards, for example.
"We have been very clear that we want to have a robust [approval] process, a process that defends the public interest, but at the same time encourages more innovation and more investment," Mr. Bains said. "We're willing to work with the carriers to look at where we can reduce and eliminate any process or timelines that exist that prevent those investments from happening."