How 5G will benefit rural Canadians

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Path to 5G is a monthly series sponsored by Telus and Huawei. In future segments, we’ll explore how 5G will transform various aspects of life in Canada, including automotive technology, rural connectivity and the development of smarter homes and cities. For a primer on 5G, click here.

Every generation of wireless technology brings about new opportunities in everything from entertainment to communications — but depending on where you live, those opportunities can take a long time to arrive.

This issue is especially prevalent in Canada, a geographically massive country with a population of only 36 million.

The many Canadians who live in rural or remote areas in this vast land often find themselves dealing with much slower internet speeds and more limited access to competitive choices than those in urban environments.

Granted, Canada took an important step toward comprehensive nationwide high-speed internet coverage when it declared broadband internet a basic service, but there’s still a major digital divide.

While urban Canadians are anticipating the multi-gigabit speeds of 5G in the near future, many rural Canadians are just hoping for reliable connectivity with double-digit Mbps speeds.

But 5G isn’t just for urban Canadians.In fact, the changes coming in with this new era of wireless internet have the potential to reduce the digital divide in a lasting way.

5G won’t just be for short-range, urban deployments

If you’ve read about 5G before, you’ve more than likely heard the hype surrounding millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum — high frequency bands capable of transporting data at incredibly fast multi-gigabit speeds.

You may have also heard that this particular type of spectrum is so finnicky — i.e. short range and easily obstructed — that its use makes little sense outside of densely-populated urban areas.

But what you might not know is that impressive 5G improvements are still possible with midband spectrum, which is a lower frequency and has a longer range (much better for rural deployment).

Bernard Bureau,Telus vice-president of 5G, told MobileSyrup that’s because the biggest enhancements come with antenna technology called massive MIMO, which works with midband spectrum like the much-desired 3.5GHz band.

Massive MIMO boosts network capacity by using an especially high number of antennas to transmit multiple radio signals simultaneously over the same radio channel. It also utilises beamforming technology, which improves range.

“By concentrating the beam, you’re able to reach further,” said Bureau.

Granted, the midband 5G that rural users might access will be a little slower than 5G using high frequency spectrum, but it’ll still provide a noticeable enhancement, one that will let rural Canadians stream and download right along with their urban counterparts.

Bureau said speeds vary greatly depending on a number of factors, including the size of frequency channels a carrier is able to acquire, but rural customers can expect “a little less” than the up to 1Gbps real-world speeds that mmWave will provide.

In other words, several hundred Mbps — which isn’t a stretch, considering PCMag showed Telus providing 100Mbps average speeds in its 2017 speedtest report.

5G fixed wireless will go the extra mile

And those increased wireless speeds will be felt not only by mobile customers, but as a whole home solution through the offering of fixed wireless.

Fixed wireless is a service that provides broadband internet via wireless antennas as opposed to wired cable or fibre internet which is run through the ground. An antenna is affixed to the customer’s house and connects to the closest wireless tower. That connection feeds to hardware in the house that provides the whole home with wireless.

In February, Huawei revealed a 5G wireless-to-the-home hardware device that Telus is now testing in Vancouver. There are two models — one for high-frequency spectrum and another for low-frequency. The low-frequency equipment is smaller, lighter and doesn’t require the use of mmWave spectrum.

Fixed wireless isn’t new for the carrier — Telus has offered the service to rural customers through its ‘Smart Hub’ offering since 2016, and reports that it currently serves around 50,000 households in Alberta, B.C. and some parts of Quebec. Still, 5G brings an exciting new dimension to the service.

Bureau noted that rollout of 5G fixed wireless will depend largely on when the company manages to acquire more midband spectrum, adding that a 3.5GHz auction is coming in 2020.

New Brunswick-based Xplornet, a long-time fixed wireless operator, is also pursuing 5G.

The telecom recently revealed that it plans to build out a fibre project that will allow it to offer 5G fixed wireless to rural Canadians on the same timeline as city-dwellers.

“We have 5G trials that have been underway for some time now,” Xplornet vice-president James Maunder told MobileSyrup.

Bell, too, is concurrently pushing forward on 5G testing and fixed wireless.

In February, the company announced alongside Huawei that fixed wireless (of the LTE variety) was in trial in Orangeville, Bethany and Feversham, Ontario — rural locations that benefit from a service that guarantees at least 25Mbps download speeds.

Bell spokesperson Nathan Gibson told MobileSyrup the new service will launch in 30 communities in Ontario and Quebec this year.

“While not Bell’s first fixed wireless service, wireless-to-the-home [WTTH] is new technology using 3.5GHz spectrum,” said Gibson, adding: “WTTH is designed to take full advantage of 5G in the future.”

Rogers, meanwhile, offers its ‘Rocket Hub’ and mobile hotspots on usage-based rates.

Beyond fixed wireless

While 5G fixed wireless is certainly something to look forward to for rural Canadians, that’s not all that’s in store.

Bureau says 5G will also require decentralization in order to reduce the latency of networks. This means that rather than towers backhauling to a few central locations in hubs like Calgary or Toronto, there will be many more wireless cores — so even if a link from Toronto to a remote community is severed, they’ll still have local connectivity.

Of course, this will take significant time and investment on the part of the carriers, but Bureau says it’s all in due course.

“Rural connectivity is a very important matter to us, as it is to the government as well, and we want to do more in the years to come.”

One helpful factor: 5G applications in industrial verticals like agriculture and mining — as well as the connected vehicle industry — mean there’s far more incentive than ever before for operators to deploy 5G networks in rural Canada.

Taken altogether, there are several things for rural Canadians to look forward to in the 5G era — improved speeds, a burgeoning fixed wireless market that takes advantage of those speeds, and more decentralized networks.

While the digital divide still exists, thanks to regulation and new technology, the gap is starting to lessen bit by bit.

Image credit: Unsplash (Jan Böke)

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