Partnerships accelerating with 5G deployment

Next-generation wireless tech expected to go ‘mainstream’ in about 18 months, says expert

Cellular communications equipment in Metro Vancouver. Development of 5G technology in Canada has spurred partnerships between telecoms and post-secondary institutions | Rob Kruyt/BIV files

Canada has not been a 5G tech first mover when over the past few years.

Its deployment of the next-generation wireless infrastructure ranks 14th out of 25 countries as measured by U.K.-based mobile analytics company Opensignal Ltd.

But partnerships between telecom providers and other sectors of the economy have been accelerating following this past summer’s spectrum auctions, making room for more enterprise applications within the next year or two.

Vancouver’s Telus Corp. (TSX:T) has been speeding up its deployment after an initial slow start.

This past summer it ponied up $1.95 billion to the federal government for spectrum licences, gaining further access to the next generation of wireless services. The newly acquired 3500 MHz spectrum licences – MHz being a measure of frequency – cover the country’s biggest markets: B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

IBM Telco Network Cloud partner Ahmed Youssef said the spectrum auctions “will speed up the adoption of anything related to 5G in terms of [enterprise]-use cases.”

IBM Canada Inc. and Telus embarked on a partnership earlier this month that will allow the computing giant to tap Telus’ 5G infrastructure for enterprise applications to offer customers.

Youssef said the partnership is expected to help large swaths of the economy, ranging from the oil and gas sector to car manufacturing.

“We’re looking at a year to a year-and-a-half for things to become really mainstream,” Youseff said, noting the uptake in enterprise applications depends on further deployment of 5G networks and adoption of more devices compatible with the infrastructure.

But once deployed, Youseff said, the lightning-speed tech will help industry optimize operations, detect malfunctions earlier and improve supply chains through smarter fleet management.

Meanwhile, Rogers Communications Inc. (TSX:RCI.B) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) revealed last month that they were renewing a previous 5G partnership for at least another four years.

Under the $4.8 million commitment from Rogers, it will collaborate with UBC researchers on initiatives using 5G to make advances in everything from wildfire management to telehealth.

“It gives UBC an opportunity to partner with people that understand the technology deeply [and] to bring the ideas that we have from a diverse group of faculty and students across our campus,” said Gail Murphy, UBC’s vice-president of research and innovation.

After UBC and Rogers agreed on broad areas of interest to partner on, the university opened the doors to researchers to join workshops and develop project proposals for 5G applications. A steering committee then gave the projects final approval.

Initial projects in the renewed partnership include improvements to wildfire management through better real-time monitoring of forest conditions, advancements in telehealth to reach patients in remote communities and the development of a platform to address large-scale emergency situations.

“With what’s going on in the news lately with wildfires in British Columbia this year, more so than ever, we thought it was really important to look for opportunities for us to be able to utilize 5G technology in partnership with UBC to look for some breakthrough opportunities and applications,” Rick Sellers, Rogers’ B.C. region president, told BIV.

Rogers and UBC originally partnered in 2018 on what the telecom giant described as Canada’s “first 5G-powered smart campus.”

Previous research projects to tap the 5G network include earthquake and tsunami detection technology, digital mining innovations to make mines safer and improve the operations of autonomous trucks.

And last year, Rogers and UBC researchers deployed 5G sensors in downtown Kelowna to better understand how pedestrians, cyclists and motorists interact. The 5G-powered sensors are able to collect more intricate data than conventional traffic cameras can.

The $4.8 million from Rogers is part of more than $25 million the telecom company has earmarked for R&D and partnerships at Canadian post-secondary institutions aimed at commercializing 5G applications.

“When we can do these partnerships with Canadian companies, we’re able to really grow interesting technology here in Canada that can benefit Canadians,” Murphy said.

But the deployment of 5G tech in Canada has been on anything but a straight path.

After waffling from Ottawa over whether Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. gear would be allowed to be deployed in Canada amid espionage concerns, Telus and Bell Canada [BCE Inc. (TSX:BCE)] revealed in June 2020 that they were leaving the Chinese tech giant in the dust.

The pair announced they would both be tapping European vendors Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson (Nasdaq:ERIC) and Nokia Corp. (HEL:NOKIA) to build out their respective 5G networks.

Telus also selected South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. for additional 5G equipment.

Unlike Huawei, none of the other vendors face concerns from Canada’s intelligence allies that their 5G equipment could be compromised by the ruling parties within their respective democracies.

Rogers Communications Inc. (TSX:RCI.B) had already long been partnered with Ericsson and began deploying 5G infrastructure in Vancouver in January 2020.

But a November report from PwC Canada said Western Canada remains at risk of falling behind other developed economies as a result of the slow deployment to date.

“Canada currently lags global peers in 5G network performance as its network is limited to low-band connectivity, and both mid- and high-band are required for 5G to fully enable the digital economy and unlock the promised economic, environmental and societal benefits,” the report concluded.

“This gap has potential consequences for Western Canada’s economic growth.” •