The shift to remote work in 2020 underscored the essentiality of a solid network infrastructure. Throughout the year, data usage in both broadband and cellular skyrocketed. Along with the workforce, the education sector also adopted a remote model to supplement in-person teaching. The stability and performance of Canada’s communication backbone have seen unprecedented use and scrutiny.
In 2021, Canadians are expected to receive the COVID-19 vaccine along with the hope of a life without social distancing and constant lockdowns. Nevertheless, communication infrastructure will remain a key topic in national development.
The mid-band 5G spectrum auction
Canada’s 5G deployment had an exciting year in 2020. Services with 600MHz went online, and faster non-standalone 5G services using 2,500MHz band have improved bandwidth for Canadians with 5G capable phones.
As 5G signals became increasingly prevalent, so did 5G enabled phones. We saw the likes of Google’s Pixel 5, Samsung Galaxy series, and the LG Velvet all arriving in Canada with 5G modems. Moreover, the big three carriers have scrapped the premium fee for their 5G plans.
There is bigger news coming in 2021, however, as the mid-band 5G spectrum auction will take place in June 2021. At a higher frequency than most current 4G bands, cellular services delivered on the 3,500MHz band should offer significantly higher throughput than the 5G plans already available.
The spectrum licenses will be hotly contested since it will mostly service dense urban areas, which generates the most income for the telcos. Although users may have to wait until 2022 and beyond to see services being activated on the new frequencies, it’s one step closer to fully realizing the 5G dream.
The big carriers are looking to snatch as many licenses as they can, but smaller operators will get a chance to compete, too. In areas where enough spectrum is available 50 MHz has been set aside by the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) for smaller operators to bid on.
After 3,500MHz will be the auctions for the high-bands, also known as mmWave, this is where data will get crazy fast, but Canada is still a ways away from having ubiquitous 5G. Once mmWave hits, standalone 5G, which is 5G infrastructure from frontend to backend, will have arrived alongside standalone 5G networks with cool new backend features like network slicing.
Implications of the broadband fund
The Government of Canada announced the increased broadband fund late this year. The relief has been planned according to Canada’s Get Connected plan, but the dire need for increased connectivity for rural areas has been succinctly highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the work from home crowd.
The increase to the Universal Broadband Fund late last year aims to further bridge the divide between rural and urban broadband connectivity. With the new $750 million increase, the Universal Broadband Fund now totals $1.75 billion. In addition, satellite internet has gotten some love too, with the government lowering the capacity cost to a reasonable wholesale price for the service providers.
Canada isn’t sitting on its hands when it comes to network development, it’s just that it takes a really long time between the first dig and final service. Therefore, Canada has turned around and focused on transparency by promising to release an annual report on project progress. This should relieve some anxiety over what undoubtedly feels like an endless wait.
Canada has also vowed to reduce the red tape and application complications surrounding the massive
The first round of projects is already underway. On Dec. 17, the Canadian government announced the first project funded through UBF, a $1 million investment to Netago Internet to bring high-speed internet to 7200 underserved counties in Alberta. Similar projects will be announced as we progress through the new year.
5G to enable new use cases, but dial back the rosy expectations
5G towers are already being deployed in urban areas and rural areas will be able to benefit from the low band frequencies. In addition, major carriers in Canada are starting to roll out their 5G backhaul, the segment that manages data between the cell towers and the servers. Once the backhaul deployment is complete, the 5G network as we know it will become standalone, fully ready for new 5G radio wave frequencies and network management technologies as they arrive.
Expect most phones released next year, even midrange to low-end ones, to support 5G. The next-generation network can also help with telehealth. According to a Deloitte report, 43 per cent of Medicare primary visits in the U.S. were done remotely in April 2020, a sharp jump from the 1 per cent in the same month last year. The report predicts that five per cent of all doctor visits will be virtual in 2021. Moreover, the same report predicts that XR headset revenue in the enterprise and education sectors will double in revenue compared to 2019.
“A driving use case for 5G will be remote work,” said Russ Ernst, executive vice-president of products and technology at Blancco, a data security company. “We are nearly a year into the pandemic and the enterprise workforce has changed dramatically as employees are becoming more accustomed to working remotely. This has driven the need for greater bandwidth as typical home networks get stressed and LTE tethered connections can barely manage a Zoom meeting. 5G provides high-speed bandwidth through your mobile device for higher quality remote work scenarios.”
But as operators continue to refine their 5G networks, the futuristic applications–like remote surgery and autonomous cars–won’t be arriving anytime soon. Bruce Lancaster, Wilson Electronics’ CEO, said that Canada will still be in the transition phase next year and won’t be seeing the promised new use cases other than faster 5G speeds.
“It’s going to take time to build out the infrastructure,” said Lancaster.”You may have test cases in downtown Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, where the deployments good, but it’s going to be on a very small scale because these things take time to build out. We don’t know which carrier will win the auction and they have to bake that into their financials. Once they win the auction then they have to go buy the infrastructure equipment and deploy that.”
Wi-Fi 6 and 6E
During the Canadian Telecom Summit in November of last year, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced the consultation for opening up the 6GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi.
Most commercial wireless transmissions use the 2.4GHz wireless frequency finely divided into channels. But as more applications arouse, the dwindling amount of available spectrum has caused network congestion and interference between devices. This is a huge problem in dense urban areas like downtown apartment complexes and large arenas.
The Wi-Fi 6 standard was designed to alleviate this problem, Operating on the traditional 2.4GHz as well as the higher frequency 5GHz band, it adds more channels to reduce overlapping. Wi-Fi 6 equipment is also more power-efficient and can handle densely gathered devices much better. While it isn’t yet the majority, it’s quickly gaining traction. In 2020, Wi-Fi 6 gear accounted for 16 per cent of all Wi-Fi hardware equipment.
But the industry is already looking towards the future for when the same congested fate befalls Wi-Fi 6. As such, Canada and the rest of the world have allocated more channels to Wi-Fi, extending Wi-Fi 6’s operating frequency into the 6GHz space. The higher frequency and channels also mean higher throughput, up to 10 Gbps. This new standard is called Wi-Fi 6E.
There are some caveats, however. Operating at a higher frequency, Wi-Fi 6E on 6GHz will have even more difficulty penetrating walls. And although Wi-Fi 6E equipment will be backwards compatible with 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum, it alone will be able to operate on the 6GHz spectrum; older hardware will not be forward compatible.
Business and politics are intertwined across industries and technology is no exception. Huawei has been caught in the crossfire between the U.S.-China political tension. But with Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump in the White House, will Huawei and ZTE be delisted from the U.S. Entity List?
Since being on the entity list in 2019, Huawei has been barred from U.S. technologies, including semiconductor companies that use U.S. tech, both in and outside of the U.S. Aside from the U.S. Huawei has also been denied access to 5G networks in France, U.K., and New Zealand and Australia. Losing access to Google meant that Huawei had to develop Harmony OS, its first-party operating system for its smartphones. With that said, without Google Play Services, Huawei smartphones are finding it difficult to attract interest in markets outside of China.
A recent report from Strand Consulting surmised the following:
“Joe Biden is unlikely to change policy to Huawei and ZTE. The conclusion that Huawei is a security threat comes from multiple US government agencies in different branches of government. Many of the analysts who develop the research are career employees who have served under multiple administrations. As such, the policy can only be described as bipartisan.”
Indeed, the report aligns with beliefs from other publications and reports that Biden will continue the hardened approach set by the Trump administration in the past years.
Regardless of the political waves emanated from powerhouse economies, Huawei wants to continue to compete in Canada.
“On our [Huawei] side: full commitment to the Canadian market,” said Radek Krasny, director of marketing for Huawei Canada, in an earlier interview with IT World Canada. “I would even say we are expanding our portfolio and growing the business on the Canadian market.”