Canada's 5G future – the story so far

Ceri Howes leads Opensignal’s work with regulators and policymakers globally and recently took part in the Regulatory Blockbuster panel at the 20th Annual Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto. Here she discusses some key considerations for Canada’s 5G future and highlights how policymakers and regulators can better make use of independent, globally-standardized data that reflects the actual experience of the consumers they serve. 

Opensignal’s independent, real-world data shows that Canada’s smartphone users have seen significant improvements to their network experience over the past few years. This is thanks to wireless carriers consistently investing in new technologies to increase spectrum efficiency and capacity, which means that Canada currently has some of the fastest 4G networks in the world.

When we look at overall speeds, all three of Canada’s national wireless carriers ranked as global leaders (top 10) for Download Speed Experience in the Global Mobile Network Experience Awards 2021. This is despite Canada’s relatively low population density and the high capex and opex costs involved in deploying networks in rural and remote parts of a large country. However, when we look at 5G, we see a different picture – Canada is unfortunately slipping behind. In the recent 5G Global Mobile Network Experience Awards, no Canadian operator ranked among the speed or availability leaders. Many leading carriers hail from countries such as Taiwan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. 

Here, we begin to see how the timing and implementation of policy and regulatory decisions has a major impact on 5G deployment. For example, carriers in South Korea began to launch their 5G networks back in April 2019. In comparison, Canada’s carriers only began their commercial launches a year later in 2020 and, even then, this was without access to the types of spectrum that have helped carriers in other countries succeed with 5G. Canada’s wireless carriers have only had access to the valuable 3.5GHz spectrum deployment in the last few months of 2021. As a result, while Canadian carriers have been investing in 5G, their users’ experience is still being propped up by substantial legacy investments in 4G technologies and spectrum.

The political and regulatory dynamics in Canada are complex, and spectrum management approaches also must consider factors such as a long, shared land border with the US. However, it is clear that various decisions around the timing, availability and pricing of critical 5G spectrum may be leading to constrained deployment. Canada’s July 2021 auction assigned a total of 200MHz of spectrum between 3.45Ghz and 3.65GHz. Of this 200MHz, 47MHz (weighted national average) was set aside for smaller, regional bidders and 64MHz was made available to national wireless carriers. Ultimately, this meant that the total amount of contiguous spectrum for national wireless carriers was significantly lower than the amount of mid-band spectrum that’s been made available to national carriers in many other 5G countries. To frame this in a global regulatory context, the ITU’s minimum technical requirements to meet the IMT-2020 criteria specify at least 100MHz of contiguous spectrum per carrier. This requirement of larger contiguous blocks of spectrum reflects the nature of 5G frequencies (such as the C-band) which can deliver much higher speeds, improved latency and the best possible mobile experience if wider channel sizes are utilized.  

The speed with which new spectrum is allocated to carriers is also important if Canada is to see the full economic benefits of 5G and also if it is going to continue to rank highly on mobile network experience worldwide. Officials in Ottawa now have a pressing opportunity to prioritize the auction of additional mid-band and lower band spectrum that meets the ITU’s minimum technical requirements and places Canada on par with 5G spectrum availability in peer countries. Without this, wireless carriers will be forced to continue to re-use existing spectrum for 5G, putting Canada at risk of falling behind on both 5G availability and quality of experience. Subsequent detrimental effects on broader macroeconomic growth are also a concern, as emerging 5G use cases in industry verticals such as agriculture, mining and manufacturing will play a central role in the transformation of Canada’s industrial policy and digital economy.

For those interested in the various policy and regulatory considerations that Canada faces in its 5G journey, Opensignal supported PWC Canada earlier this year on a report which investigated the impact of COVID-19 on connectivity across the country and provided a forward look at what this meant for the state of 5G. As part of this research, we provided independent data that reflected the real-world state of connectivity in Canada from a consumer perspective. The report identified six key policy drivers for incentivizing 5G deployment and broadband-enabled use cases. These include spectrum timing and costs; network investment incentives; rural subsidies and funding for research and development. 

As Opensignal’s methodology is standardized globally — our metrics are measured in the same way in every country testing experience directly from a mobile device all the way through to a content delivery network, or CDN — we were able to provide relevant experiential comparisons across a number of countries. This data was then contextualized with a comparative policy analysis across the same markets so that officials can begin to build an evidence base to examine how these decisions impact the consumer experience. Opensignal’s recent research on the use of CBRS spectrum in the US also provides a similar opportunity for layered policy analysis based on independent and standardized mobile experience data.

To learn more about how Opensignal reports and analyses increase the understanding of the true experience consumers receive on wireless networks in Canada, please click here