In the first generation of wireless technology, people obtained the ability to talk to each other on mobile telephones.
In the second, they could text each other and leave voicemail messages.
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Then came the third generation, which gave mobile users global roaming and faster transmissions. Then the fourth, which allowed for video streaming.
Now, wireless technology is expected to embark upon its fifth generation — and this is going to be an evolution like none that has come before it, tech experts have said.
“It’s almost a total reimagining of what you can do in a cellular network,” said David Michelson, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UBC.
At the simplest level, the biggest difference between 5G and previous generations of wireless technology is a matter of infrastructure.
There were advances from generations one through four, but the “architecture was fundamentally the same,” Michelson said.
Say you wanted to call a friend. You wouldn’t exactly be sending it from one device directly to the next.
Your device would actually contact a base station with antennae, saying it wants to make a call. Then the call would bounce over to another base station and, finally, the phone you’re trying to reach.
“That’s the way it generally has worked since the 1980s,” Michelson said.
5G technology essentially cuts out the base station and allows machine-to-machine communication thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), a network that allows devices to talk to each other.
This kind of communication offers advantages — not just for cell phones, but for vehicles, and even industrial equipment.
One advantage: latency, or the time it takes for devices to respond to each other.
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Under 4G technology, it can take up to 50 milliseconds for one device to send information to another.
5G can cut that time down to as little as a millisecond, said Communications Research Centre Canada (CRC).
Mobile phone users might not notice a significant difference. But passengers in driverless cars will — their vehicles could offer a swift exchange of information about accidents ahead.
Say a crash happened some distance in front of your car; 5G technology could allow driverless cars to communicate the fact of that accident to each other in less time, potentially helping them to avoid disaster.
Such technology could also be useful for industry. A Nokia blog from 2016 suggested that 5G could help to foster a “fully automated and flexible production system” in factories.
Hospitals, it said, could see surgeries performed by robots “as if the surgeon were physically present next to the patient.”
On a cold winter’s day, 5G could let you turn up the thermostat in your home before you even arrived there, according to CRC.
Machine-to-machine communication was possible with previous generations of wireless technology, but it was too expensive to do when information had to route through a base station, Michelson said.
The Internet of Things network allows machine-to-machine transmission to happen at a cost that makes more economic sense, he added.
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5G technology is also advancing at a time when the world is taking on more devices. CRC estimates the number of devices in the world could grow exponentially in the coming years, going from over 5 billion in 2017 to as many as 100 billion in 2020.
Wireless signals travel along airwaves known as “spectrum bands.” These waves operate at different frequencies — Wi-Fi waves, for example, travel on a band with a frequency of 2.5 GHz, Michelson said.
Sometimes, these bands fill up with traffic, requiring more space — or bandwidth — so that devices can function more effectively.
Other times, certain technologies move off particular bands, creating space for other companies to move in and use them.
Spectrum auctions, for example, sell off space on bands that used to be occupied by entities like TV stations, before they moved to digital transmission.
With space cleared on a spectrum band, technology firms such as wireless companies can buy up that space to help their customers transmit their data.
A public policy paper produced by GSMA, a trade association that acts on behalf of mobile companies, said 5G technology will need “a significant amount of new harmonized spectrum.”
The paper envisions 5G functioning on what are known as “millimetre-wave bands,” which have frequencies of 28 GHz or higher.
These bands, which can transmit more data, faster, are considered most appropriate for the high speeds that 5G is expected to foster.
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By contrast, 4G technology uses frequencies of less than 1 GHz, according to Verizon.
“There’s more spectrum available in the 28 GHz band that in all the cellular band allocations below 6 GHz by an order of magnitude,” Michelson said.
Canada does not yet have 5G, though research is happening toward realizing it.
CRC and the City of Ottawa, for example, have partnered on a test site where researchers are looking at how mobile devices can function on millimetre-wave bands.
While 5G has generated plenty of excitement in tech circles, it’s also fostered concern about security — specifically around Huawei, the Chinese tech giant whose CFO, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in December ahead of a possible extradition to the United States.
There are concerns that if Huawei products were used in the development of a 5G network, then the company could spy on Canada on China’s behalf.
The United States, New Zealand and Australia have banned Huawei products in 5G network development for this very reason.
For its part, Canada’s government is carrying out a 5G security review, but details are scant and it’s not clear when it will be completed.
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For now, Canada has inked a $40-million research deal with Nokia — Huawei’s rival.
Nokia and Ericsson are considered strong possibilities as companies that could help to construct the Great White North’s 5G networks.
There’s no certainty on when the network will be completed, but Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains has offered one hint.
- With files from Amanda Connolly, Rebecca Joseph, Jamie Sturgeon and The Canadian Press