I like to think I know a touch more about wireless network technology than the average person, having worked closely with Rogers during the crucial 2008-2010 period when the company participated in the first spectrum auction, brought the Apple iPhone and Google Android to Canada and launched its 7.2 HSPA network while priming the market for 4G LTE.
This brief window also marked the beginning of a rapidly changing landscape in wireless. It saw Rogers’ two biggest rivals adopt the same wireless standards that had, to that point, provided the company with a unique competitive differentiator in the early days of the wireless wars. It was an exciting time to be involved in the world of telecommunications.
Fast forward almost a decade. When the Globe and Mail announced it would be holding a 5G panel as a part of its recent Canada Future Forward Summit, I wanted to make sure I was in the room. 5G is particularly interesting since it’s been central to Canada’s ongoing diplomatic dispute with China over Huawei. Even though 5G could still be a decade away from the mass market, as panelist Jacob Glick from North Inc. noted, the level of public awareness and debate vastly exceeds any wireless standards discussions in Canada to date.
The panel featured an expert lineup (including Glick, Osler’s Patricia Kosseim, Nokia’s Ifran Khan and Carleton University’s Stephanie Carvin) and covered a number of fascinating elements of the debate. But it was a statement from Glick that really stood out. When discussing the importance of Canada moving quickly on 5G, he noted: “We either need to shape the standards for the network, or someone will shape it for us.”
As true as that is from a technological standpoint, it’s also the case when it comes to communications -- for both telecom companies and all of the businesses and policy-makers in the broader 5G ecosystem. The importance of network technology can be difficult to explain to the average person in plain language, particularly when the discussion focuses more on what it is and less on what it can and will do.
Smart phones good enough?
A good example was a question from the audience. An attendee said she was more than happy with her current smartphone and it can already do everything required, so why should companies -- and by extension, consumers and taxpayers — be on the hook for what will amount to billions in network infrastructure investment? Others at the event expressed concern about electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and the potential long-term health ramifications of deploying 5G equipment directly into low-level urban infrastructure like antennas on bus stops — though many of those concerns have already been debunked.
The organizations in the 5G ecosystem that will benefit the greatest will be those that can effectively communicate the value of the new standards and how, when deployed five, seven or 10 years from now, they will solve challenges consumers face today. Those companies will consistently and concisely deliver messages about the vast positive impacts of 5G technology while correcting inherent misconceptions.
5G will improve the smartphone experience for consumers, but by how much is still to be seen. But for the telecom companies, it’s less about what their customers will buy directly from them and more about all of the other huge new advancements that will impact our lives via the 5G ecosystem. In areas that include automation, 5G will truly reshape our day-to-day existence.
For example, it’s expected that 5G will make it easier for manufacturers like GM, Toyota and Honda to test and bring self-driving cars to market at a more affordable price. That message is a win for both consumers and automakers. It makes the daily commute much more attractive for those who’d prefer to live outside of major urban centres, where real estate is cheaper. That provides benefits to employees, to real estate agents, to local business communities in non-metro towns and for municipal governments that stand to increase their tax coffers when people opt to buy homes in Collingwood or Chilliwack instead of condos in Cabbagetown or Kitsilano.
5G will also make it easier for organizations to automate low-pay, low-skill and potentially dangerous work, and reinvest those cost savings back into reskilling for affected employees and higher-value, higher-salary roles for those same workers. An example would be a long-haul trucker stepping out of the cab of one truck and instead managing an automated fleet of five or six vehicles remotely.
As 5G proliferates and the costs associated with many enabled solutions become more budget-friendly, local governments will also be able to integrate some of the many innovative uses, like electrical grid optimization, traffic management and smart streetlights and sidewalks.
Those are just a few of the myriad areas where 5G can and will impact our lives, so it’s no wonder the public debate is already so prominent. Call me an optimist, but maybe more so than any technological advancement, 5G has the potential to have a profoundly positive impact on more aspects of our day-to-day lives than ever before.
As Canada pushes to be a leader in 5G, telecommunications companies and all of the participants in the 5G ecosystem should be looking to the next few years as the critical juncture for billboarding the value of 5G and to tip the scales in favour of optimism across the political, economic and consumer landscapes. The companies that can best communicate with each of these stakeholders in these early days stand to benefit the most when 5G changes the face of our wireless landscape.