Last month Rogers Communications flipped the switch that lit up Canada’s first 5G network in select Canadian cities – Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal. When it happened, it marked a milestone – the tangible beginning of the public rollout of a long-hyped technology.
The thing about 5G and hype is that there is every indication the hype is deserved, because it’s widely expected that 5G will eventually change everything. It is the high-speed infrastructure that will enable autonomous vehicles, smart intersections, new industrial processes and near-instant connectivity for millions of new devices. It is destined to become the backbone of the world’s economy, one that will enable the creation of services and processes that can’t yet be imagined. It’s not overstating things to say that it will alter everyone’s life.
“It will completely reshape the world,” says Alexander Brock, Rogers Senior Vice-President Technology, Strategy, Innovation and Partnership. “It's probably the most transformative [technology] that we've had in a long, long time, perhaps even from the beginning of wireless.”
But what is it, exactly? What does 5G mean? How will it transform things? And when? Communitech News explains:
The nuts and bolts, if you please. What are we talking about here?
5G means fifth generation. It’s the latest iteration of the technology that enabled the first cell phones back in the mid-1980s.
Fifth generation? What was the fourth generation?
4G is the technology most of us currently use with our mobile devices. 4G enabled mobile broadband internet and serviced the apps common with today’s smart devices.
4G was preceded by (you guessed it) 3G, which enabled basic mobile computing; before that, 2G allowed text and limited data. And the first-generation network? It enabled voice over the first mobile telephones – those brick-like devices your father remembers using in the mid-to-late 1980s.
OK, so 5G will be faster than 4G. Is that the idea?
Yes, but not just faster – up to 100 times faster. And its pipes, the supporting bandwidth, will be far more capable. 5G infrastructure will enable and support millions of new devices per square kilometre with far less latency or delay than available at present. Battery life of devices will be enormously enhanced. Communication between devices will be near-instantaneous.
So apps on my phone will work better, then?
Yes, your mobile device will have far greater capability. Movies, for instance, will download in an instant. But the technology is not really aimed at your phone. It’s designed to support the devices that will make up, among other things, the Internet of Things. It will enable smart intersections, and allow autonomous automobiles to safely navigate and communicate with one another and instantly resolve potential right-of-way conflicts. It will allow a doctor to remotely manipulate a surgical robot on the other side of continent with instant response. It will enable the smart factory – robots communicating with one another and capable of being instantly reprogrammed according to shifting, real-time, demand.
It will, in the words of Rogers’ Brock, allow the evolution from “the real-time economy to the instant economy.”
Yes. The world will change, and the speed of change will rapidly increase. Industrial processes will be transformed. Brock described, for instance, the emergence of the “smart port,” where containers are plucked from ships by robotic cranes that can “see,” enabled by video transfers at high speed. The containers would be instantly catalogued, paid for and loaded onto autonomous trucks or trains. Goods will move without humans to slow the process. Commerce and communication will speed up.
Is there a downside?
The automation that 5G will enable could have enormous implications for the labour market and the future of work. And the technology will be so powerful, so transformative, that those who don’t have access to it – those who live in the planet’s rural or developing areas, for instance – will be severely disadvantaged. It has the potential to amplify the digital divide. Governments will potentially feel pressure to equalize the playing field and ensure citizens aren’t left behind.
When will 5G begin to take hold?
We’re in the early stages. “It's a revolutionary technology, but it is an evolutionary [process] to roll it out,” says Brock.
“We've actually been working on [5G] for more than two years. We have been in the process of replacing [equipment] on the network now for two years to get ready for this.”
Rogers is aiming to have as many as 20 Canadian communities served by 5G by the end of this year. Bell and Telus are preparing their own networks, as are telecom companies around the world.
As 5G networks are established, device manufacturers and industrial players will begin the process of developing and testing their hardware on the network.
In Canada, 5G will, at first, utilize the core of the 4G network. But once the federal government releases high-frequency radio spectrum – expected in 2021 – a standalone 5G core will become available and higher speeds will be realized.
Rogers is additionally in the process of establishing a 5G innovation lab at Communitech, and is a partner with the University of Waterloo on a 5G test network. The company is also working with ENCQOR 5G, a $400-million pre-commercial corridor of 5G infrastructure which, as of last October, included the Communitech Data Hub, where companies can test products and technologies on a 5G network.
What happens next?
Incrementally more and more equipment and capability will be rolled out on the network side and with regard to the devices that will operate on the network.
“What we do know is that 5G is going to transform the way we live and work,” says Brock. “It's the most significant technological change in wireless since 1985.”