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Canada struggles in the global 5G race due to insufficient mid-band spectrum

In this new analysis, Opensignal investigates the impact of spectrum bandwidth on the 5G mobile network experience of our Canadian smartphone users, compared to that of users in other OECD markets. While Canada enjoys one of the fastest average 4G download speeds across the OECD members, which is driven by greater 4G spectrum bandwidth used for mobile connectivity, the country lags behind other OECD members in terms of 5G Download Speed. An inferior 5G experience in Canada can be partly explained by the use of smaller 5G spectrum bandwidths, along with a relatively low share of the 3.5GHz band used for 5G connections.



Canada sees one of the largest amounts of 4G spectrum bandwidth used for 4G connections across 38 OECD markets — nearly 40MHz on average. This results in one of the highest 4G Download Speed scores in this group — 61.2Mbps. European markets like Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway are examples of markets with high 4G Download Speed scores and wide bandwidths dedicated to 4G connectivity on average.



However, the overview of 5G spectrum bandwidth’s impact on 5G Download Speed tells a different story for Canada when we compare it against the 31 OECD members that have already deployed 5G services commercially at a large scale. With an average 5G spectrum capacity of 47.1MHz — less than the majority of OECD member states — Canada’s 5G Download Speed clocks in at 146.4Mbps. This is significantly below average 5G download speeds seen in markets such as South Korea, Denmark and Israel, where our 5G users connect to 5G services using much larger average 5G spectrum bandwidths.


Comparing the 4G to 5G uplift for download speed experience across 32 OECD member states — those that have commercially deployed 5G services on a large scale — reveals that Canada has one of the lowest ratios between 5G Download Speed and 4G Download Speed in the observed group, of 2.4 times. It is on par with Poland and above the Netherlands — two European countries that were delayed with the assignment of the 3.5GHz band to mobile services. Poland only completed its 5G spectrum auction in October 2023, while the Netherlands is yet to run the assignment process due to issues with freeing up the 3.5GHz band from satellite services. Meanwhile, Opensignal users in Israel see 8.4 times faster 5G Download Speed than 4G Download Speed, followed by Chile (7.8 times uplift), Mexico (6.9 times) and South Korea (6.5 times).



One of the factors that can explain the lower 4G to 5G uplift for Canada is the relatively lower use of the 3.5GHz band for 5G connectivity compared to other OECD countries. Opensignal looked at the proportions of 5G readings on spectrum bands between 3GHz and 5GHz — bands n77, n78, and n79 (the latter is used only in Japan). 27.7% of Opensignal 5G readings in Canada are on the 3.5GHz band, which is one of the lowest results in the OECD. This is a blended result for all Canadian operators – it includes national players Bell, Rogers and Telus and regional operators.


The initially low amount of spectrum assigned to Canadian operators in the 3.5GHz frequencies, compared to other leading 5G markets, is one of the reasons why operators in Canada do not use this band for 5G connectivity as often as their counterparts in other markets. The Canadian government assigned only 200MHz of spectrum in the 3.45-3.65GHz frequency range during the 2021 spectrum auction, with the actual amounts of spectrum available varying on a geographical basis. Moreover, it set aside up to 50MHz for smaller regional operators, therefore limiting access to the 3.5GHz spectrum assets for the biggest players like Bell, Rogers or Telus. Canadian operators are therefore forced to re-use existing 4G spectrum for 5G services — 53.8% of our 5G readings for Canada come from the 1700/2100MHz band (n66).


Israel, South Korea, New Zealand and Chile are markets where the 3.5GHz band is used nearly exclusively for 5G connectivity. As mentioned above, Poland and the Netherlands have not yet assigned the 3.5GHz band to 5G services in the analyzed period. It’s important to note that the results for the U.S. do not include the 2.5GHz band (n41), which T-Mobile widely uses for its 5G deployments.




Opensignal has quantified the impact of more 5G spectrum bandwidth on average 5G download speeds before, both globally and in Asia Pacific. Looking at the experience of our users across national Canadian operators, we see a very similar trend. 5G Download Speed is 34.5% faster when more than 50MHz and up to 100MHz,  compared to 50MHz or less of bandwidth used for 5G connectivity. The boost is even greater with more than 100MHz of spectrum is used, combined through the 5G Carrier Aggregation technology, as 5G Download Speed is 87.2% faster than connections using 50MHz of less of spectrum.

While average 5G spectrum bandwidth exceeding 100MHz results in the fastest 5G Download Speed for Canadian operators, our users rarely enjoy such wide spectrum capacities. We recorded 1.8% of 5G readings using more than 100MHz in Canada. More than half of 5G readings in Canada see the use of 50MHz or less spectrum bandwidth. Looking at other OECD markets, the proportions of 5G readings using more than 100MHz spectrum are much higher. 23 out of 32 OECD members observe more than 10% of 5G readings using this bandwidth — with Austria or Sweden being the leaders of the pack, with above 30% of 5G readings using more than 100MHz of spectrum.

In the neighboring US, speedy 5G rollouts using the C-band (n77) have been key to improving the 5G mobile network experience for AT&T and Verizon users. However, Canadian operators rely mainly on the frequencies between 1GHz and 3GHz for 5G connectivity — with 66.4% of Opensignal readings in this range, the bulk of them coming from the 1700/2100MHz band. 27.7% of 5G readings come from the 3.5GHz band (n78), while the remaining readings are from the sub-1GHz bands, mainly the 600MHz band (n71). The 600MHz band is well-suited for coverage, but less so for capacity and is therefore less useful for ensuring fast 5G throughput. 

Opensignal has previously analyzed the disparity between Canada’s 4G and 5G international position against other markets leading in 5G deployments. The insufficient amount of spectrum assigned to the Canadian mobile operators has taken a toll, as the country noticeably falls behind other markets in the 5G global race. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recommends the minimal bandwidth of 80-100MHz of contiguous 5G spectrum as a technical requirement for 5G deployments. While this is a standard in many markets which have already launched 5G services commercially — Canadian operators own more than 80-100MHz of contiguous 5G spectrum in the 3.5GHz band only in a limited number of service areas. As our analysis demonstrates, countries with this bandwidth profile are the most successful in adopting 5G, embracing the benefits of this mobile generation and making their economies competitive globally.

However, spectrum availability is likely to improve soon in Canada. In January 2023, the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Industry assigned previously unsold spectrum licences in the 600MHz, 2.5GHz and 3.5GHz bands to both national and regional operators. Furthermore, the Canadian government is in the process of auctioning 250MHz of 3.8GHz spectrum in the 3650-3900MHz frequency range, with 22 applicants qualified for the spectrum auction. Together with the already existing spectrum in the 3.5GHz band, new spectrum assets in the 3.8GHz band should boost the capacity of Canadian 5G networks and improve the country’s 5G experience, making Canada more competitive against other markets worldwide.