5G spectrum key to Canadian tech innovation
Faster speeds, ultra-low latency and innovations such as AI will transform everything from healthcare to climate change, but experts warn government rules around our radio waves must evolve – and quickly – if we hope to compete on a global scale. iSTOCK
Anyone who’s needed an ultrasound, MRI or other medical imaging knows that getting an appointment, and then results, can take weeks as healthcare providers work to catch up to an ever-increasing backlog.
If only there was a way to conduct more critical scans and review them at lightning speed.
There may be, thanks to 5G wireless connectivity, which can process data and information far more quickly than today. For the medical technology industry, all that speed and capacity paves the way for life-saving innovation. For example, the creation of an algorithm that uses wireless technology to assess thousands of data points from millions of anonymous ultrasound scans stored in the cloud to identify patterns in tumours and augment the diagnostic process.
“The best way to think about 5G is not just as a network for faster data or better video – think of it as a platform for innovation,” says Juan Ranuarez, Director of Spectrum and Device Technologies at TELUS.
Over the past few years, everyone – from wireless industry executives to Canadians across the country – has been talking about 5G, and while some networks are now offering 5G capabilities, the vast majority of the innovative offerings 5G will deliver aren’t yet in market.
What’s the hold up? In part, the lack of what’s called spectrum, the radio frequencies across which wireless signals travel.
Balancing speed and coverage requires different frequencies, or bands, of spectrum; however the spectrum itself is finite, so the distribution of these waves is federally regulated. The government auctions off licences that telecoms must purchase to use for their networks. 4G, which has been used worldwide for the last 10 years, utilizes some bands of the spectrum, while 5G uses additional frequencies to achieve even greater opportunities.
The government began auctioning off 5G spectrum bands in 2019, and it still has a ways to go before all bands are auctioned off.
Experts say moving forward with that process quickly and efficiently is key to establishing Canada’s status as an innovation super power.
“Spectrum is the currency of the wireless connection,” says Jean-Charles Fahmy, President and CEO of Canada’s Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks (CENGN), where Canadian startups can test out their innovative technologies. “To enable the potential of 5G we need to get the rest of the spectrum allocated, and we need to provide technology-innovation companies an environment where new 5G use cases can be tested and validated so that they can take full advantage of the potential.”
The promise of 5G spectrum
A key challenge with 5G rollout stems from current government policies that allow telecoms to purchase an allotment of spectrum and then not use it.
Companies such as TELUS are pushing back, advocating for, among other policy shifts, stricter deployment conditions that would mandate carriers to use the spectrum licences they’ve purchased, or the government revokes them. TELUS believes that the policies need to reflect the greatest deployment for the greatest opportunity for the social, economic and environmental opportunities digital technologies offer. For Canada to fully realize the benefits of 5G, the networks need to be available everywhere, and that means rapidly deploying the spectrum for the use of industry and consumers rather than using it as an ineffective tool to determine the number of operators.
“To get 5G right, everyone needs enough spectrum to serve the customers they have. If carriers can’t get or use the spectrum they need Canada will miss out on the opportunity 5G offers,” says Ranuarez.
Conceptually, many people have a vague sense that 5G is this futuristic network that will permeate our lives and make things better. In reality, 5G is up to 10 times faster than 4G; there’s more capacity for devices; and latency, which results in lags in videos or data transfer, can be reduced to as little as five milliseconds. It also makes monumental technology innovations possible and allows companies to dream on a larger scale than ever before.
“I’m not going to say 5G solves our healthcare problems, but it’s a next-gen enabler,” notes Ben Morris, Vice President of Corporate Development and Technology Strategies at Wesley Clover, a private global investment management firm and holding company. “It can solve some of these challenges with connected devices, more efficient use of staff, and asset tracking and management. All of these things can leverage 5G.”
Of course, the possibilities of 5G go beyond healthcare solutions. An Accenture study found that 5G connectivity, which would increase the use of climate data-tracking smart sensor technology, could reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2025.
“There’s a clear value in 5G with regard to hitting net-zero targets which can be applied across a wide range of sectors, including resource industries and smart cities,” says Fahmy, adding that smart sensors on a 5G network would make it much easier to monitor, predict and adjust a wide range of resource and energy inputs and usage, for example agricultural inputs, water usage, waste output and building energy efficiency.
More innovations ahead
When the first smartphones were introduced, no one could have imagined that one day they’d be used to deposit cheques in a bank account, video chat with friends on another continent or have groceries delivered within a day. Many of the mobile-enabled activities we now take for granted are possible thanks to 4G, which should give people an idea of the transformative technologies that could be developed with 5G.
“Indeed, as the country’s capacity for 5G expands, so does its capacity for innovation,” says Morris.
But time is of the essence. Without the supporting framework and the necessary elements, one of which is enough spectrum, Morris says companies will hit a wall and that innovation void will be filled by someone else.
“This is a story about being open, moving quickly, building and providing the most innovation-friendly platform possible so that we, as Canadians, can build on that and really go global.”
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