The federal, Ontario and Quebec governments say they will spend $200 million to help fund research into 5G wireless technology, the next-generation networks with download speeds 100 times faster than current ones can handle.
The so-called “5G corridor,” known as ENCQOR, will see tech companies such as Ericsson, Ciena Canada, Thales Canada, IBM and CGI kick in another $200 million to develop facilities to get the project up and running.
The idea is to set up a network of linked research facilities and laboratories that these companies — and as many as 1,000 more across Canada — will be able to use to test products and services that run on 5G networks.
What is 5G?
The world of tech is moving at a breakneck pace. Right now a galaxy of media and information fits neatly on the phone in your pocket and vehicles are beginning to drive themselves.
If you think things are moving too fast, buckle up, because a new 5G cellular network is just around the corner and it promises to transform our lives by connecting nearly everything to a new, much faster, reliable wireless network.
The first networks won’t be operational for at least a few years, but technology and telecom companies around the world are already planning to spend billions to make sure they aren’t left behind, says Lawrence Surtees, a communications analyst with the research firm IDC.
The new 5G is no tentative baby step toward the future. Rather, as Surtees puts it, “the move from 4G to 5G is a quantum leap.”
Imagine you are waiting to get on a plane for a long-haul flight and you want to download the latest Star Wars movie.
Today, that process might take you about an hour to get a short HD movie onto your phone, as 4G networks can move about 1 gigabit per second and most consumers actually get much lower speeds.
On a 5G network of the future, however, that same movie will be on your phone or tablet in just seconds.
And it can do a lot more than just making your downloads faster. The 5G network will allow more devices to communicate more data. They will be an integral part of the system that brings us promised connected cities, fully autonomous vehicles and augmented reality portrayed in movies like Minority Report.
Taking VR and AR mainstream
In a downtown Toronto soundstage, Alan Smithson recently demonstrated a few virtual reality and augmented reality projects that his company MetaVRse is working on.
The potential for VR and AR technology is endless, he said, in large part for its potential to help hurdle some of the walls we are already seeing with current networks.
Virtual Reality technology on the market today is continually increasing things like frame rates and screen resolutions in a constant quest to make their devices even more lifelike.
“We’ve seen an enormous growth in the last few years,” he said. “But as you increase the resolution of these screens, of course you have to push more data.”
That’s where 5G comes in. Because pushing more data over current 4G networks isn’t really possible. They can’t handle the load. But 5G can do so easily, Smithson said, so much so that the current era of bulky augmented reality headsets could be replaced by a pair of normal looking glasses.
“Ten years out,” he imagines, “everybody’s wearing a pair of glasses instead of a smartphone.”
In a 5G world, those internet-connected glasses will automatically recognize everyone you meet, and possibly be able to overlay their name in your field of vision, along with a link to their online profile. They may also show you a billboard some advertiser has paid to make you see, while offering a different ad to the person standing next to you. All backed by 5G technology.
Connecting ‘smart cities’
In a University of Toronto laboratory, Professor Alberto Leon-Garcia researches connected vehicles and smart power grids. “My passion right now is enabling smart cities — making smart cities a reality — and that means having much more immediate and detailed sense of the environment,” he said.
Faster 5G networks will assist his projects in many ways, by giving planners more, instant data on things like traffic patterns, energy consumption, various carbon footprints and much more.
“All of those are possible in the near future,” he said.
Leon-Garcia points to a brightly lit map of Toronto in his office, and explains that every dot of light represents a sensor transmitting real time data.
Currently, the network is hooked up to things like city buses, traffic cameras and the city-owned fleet of shared bicycles. He currently has thousands of data points feeding him info on his map, but in a 5G world, the network will support about a million sensors per square kilometre.
Not just science fiction
It may sound far-off and futuristic, but 5G is just around the corner. Already, infrastructure is being built, lines of code are being written, and the protocols that will govern it all are being debated and finalized.
Canada’s major wireless carriers are beginning to plan and build out their own 5G networks, too. Rogers has outfitted the entire Rogers Centre with dozens of 5G antennas in the hope of bringing a new level of event experience to their customers. Bell and Telus are working on similar plans to test and build their own networks .
There are still some hurdles to get over. Antennas will need to be much closer together, meaning more will be required. That could get expensive, especially in rural and remote areas. Also, it will take a while to build the new network outside of urban centres and 5G-capable devices will be, at first, limited and expensive
Consumers and shareholders will share those costs — but it doesn’t necessarily mean your cellphone bill will go up dramatically in a 5G world. according to Surtees, “It’s going to appear with 5G as if bandwidth is almost infinite.”