5G Primer

What is 5G?

5G or “fifth generation” refers to the next generation of mobile wireless standards and technologies. 5G will enable a fully connected and mobile society, and deliver unprecedented benefits to citizens, industry and government.

While current networks focus primarily on data transmission (i.e. throughput), 5G networks are being designed to not only provide faster transmission speeds but also to ensure more widespread coverage, to handle more connected devices and traffic types, and to support different use cases. 5G will connect infrastructure, vehicles, sensors, buildings, machinery, and people in a way that will change the way we work, play, and interact.

5G performance

The key performance requirements for 5G networks have been established by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an agency of The United Nations whose purpose is to coordinate telecommunications operations and services throughout the world. Some of the key 5G benchmarks included in its International Mobile Communications (IMT-2020) standard are:

Superfast speeds

From a peak speed perspective – meaning under ideal conditions – 5G is expected to have a peak download speed of 20 Gbps. That is 20 times faster than the 4G peak download speed of 1 Gbps. To put that in context, at peak speed you could download a standard feature-length movie over a 5G network in less than a second, or 20 movies in the time it takes you to download one movie at peak 4G speed.

While peak download speed represents what could occur in ideal conditions, it is important to look at what kind of speed a user should reliably expect in average conditions. While speed can be affected by many factors, the 5G benchmark for reliable download speed per user is a minimum of 100 Mbps. While lower than 5G’s peak download speed, it is still 10 times faster than the reliable download speed per user benchmark for 4G.

Ultra-low latency

Latency refers to the time it takes for data to get from one point to another over a network. Today’s networks allow us to experience multimedia and connect with other people and machines wirelessly, but these interactions are at times affected by transmission delays.

The 5G benchmark for what is referred to as Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC) is a minimum of 1 millisecond; much lower than the 50 millisecond latency benchmark for 4G networks. URLLC will allow us to interact and connect in real time. This opens up a vast world of possibilities that did not exist prior to 5G. Examples include:

  • Telemedicine, where doctors using connected robots will be able to remotely examine, test, diagnose, and even perform surgical procedures on a patient;
  • Emergency response, such as firefighting robots that can be remotely operated to rescue individuals and put out fires without endangering the lives of human firefighters; and
  • Connected cars, which will be able to receive critical data from sensors embedded in roadside infrastructure, buildings, and other cars, enabling drivers or autonomous car systems to take swift action to avoid danger.

URLLC will also greatly enhance the capabilities of augmented and virtual reality which will be able to match human interaction with these digital environments in real time. This will better enable AR/VR use for education and training purposes. When paired with other technologies that permit users to feel the actions of another – the so-called “Tactile Internet” – training professionals will be able to instruct and correct the actions of the trainee simultaneously.

Massive connectivity

The number of physical devices, or “things”, connected to the internet (commonly referred to as the Internet of Things, or IoT) is growing exponentially. While estimates vary, the number of IoT devices – fixed and mobile – is expected to jump from tens of billions to hundreds of billions over the next decade. While not all connected devices require superfast speeds or ultra-low latency, the sheer number of connections will strain the capabilities of today’s networks.

If you have attended a large gathering such as a concert or a sporting event, you may have found it was difficult to connect to the cellular network, or that service was not completely reliable. That is because today’s networks are limited in the number of connections they can support within a defined area. For IoT to reach its full potential, the connection density of our wireless networks will have to increase drastically.

5G networks will be designed to support large numbers of connected physical devices, even in confined spaces. The IMT-2020 benchmark for connection density is 1 million devices per square kilometre, compared to around 2,000 devices per square kilometre for 4G.

Low power consumption

More efficient power consumption by connected devices, both when sending and receiving data and while in sleep mode, is another key component of the 5G IMT-2020 specification. In meeting this specification, instead of requiring a wired power source, some wireless modems will be able to run on battery power for up to 10 years. This is particularly important when deploying massive numbers of sensors and other physical devices as it reduces the costs of installation, maintenance, and replacement, and enables deployment in areas where wired power sources are not readily available.

While the above are but a few of the performance benchmarks for 5G networks, they illustrate the transformative nature of 5G.

What will 5G mean for me?

5G will mean different things to different people. Consumers whose experience with wireless networks consists primarily of messaging, downloading or streaming content, and surfing the internet will still be able to do these things – only much faster and with improved reliability. Consumers who do not have broadband internet at home (e.g., internet via cable or fibre) may be able to access internet through 5G fixed-wireless to the home.

Car owners will discover more and more services being delivered to their car wirelessly, including real-time traffic alerts, enhanced navigation and other infotainment services, and over-the-air software updates.

People will also be able to engage in more immersive experiences, whether at public events or from the comfort of home, through AR/VR and related technologies.

Residents will be able to program appliances to operate only at times when energy rates are at their lowest via smart energy grid technology. And these are just a few of the potential ways in which 5G will change how consumers live and experience the world.

But 5G is about much more than consumers. 5G will have a significant impact on nearly every industry. Whether advanced manufacturing, healthcare, transportation, retail, natural resources, or urban planning, 5G will connect these industries and the people and machines that manage them so they can work smarter, more efficiently, and more productively.

When will 5G arrive?

5G technologies are still in the development and trial stages, with trials in cities across the world, including in Canada. The consensus amongst industry experts is that 5G won’t be widely available until 2020.

Key challenges to 5G deployment

Achieving the promise of 5G will not be without obstacles. In Canada there are three key challenges to 5G deployment: the need for significant capital investment; the availability of spectrum; and efficient regulations and processes for the deployment of 5G infrastructure.


Canada currently has some of the best mobile wireless networks in the world, with the fastest download speeds in the G7 and 99% of Canadians within range of LTE, or 4G, networks. To achieve this milestone, Canada’s facilities-based wireless carriers – the operators that build and operate Canada’s wireless networks – have invested, as of 2018, close to $50 billion, excluding the cost of acquiring and licensing spectrum. In doing so they have invested more as a percentage of revenue than operators in any other G7 country.

Maintaining Canada’s leadership position as the world moves towards 5G networks will require significant additional investment by Canada’s facilities-based carriers. Making such investments requires a stable regulatory environment that recognizes facilities-based competition as the best way to encourage investment.


Canadians are some of the biggest consumers of wireless data in the world, with increases in consumption showing no signs of slowing down. Additional spectrum needs to be allocated to mobile wireless services in order to meet the demand. In addition, meeting the performance benchmarks for 5G networks will require the combined use of low-band, mid-band, and high-band spectrum.

So as not to fall behind on the path to 5G, it is important that the Government of Canada allocate additional spectrum required for 5G networks in a timely manner.

Deployment of 5G infrastructure

5G networks will assist citizens in their daily lives, deliver significant economic benefits, and help municipalities provide better government services. Yet many of the existing rules, regulations, and fees governing the deployment of wireless infrastructure were established to address the siting of 200-foot tall cell towers.

5G will require a greater density of small cells using much smaller equipment. This will require more precise cell positioning and a larger number of siting approvals. To ensure that the benefits of 5G are fully realized, policymakers at all levels of government must modernize the deployment process to ensure:

(i) Fair and reasonable access to government-owned land and buildings, including utility poles and streetlights;
(ii) The streamlining of administrative processes, including shorter timelines, appropriate exemptions, and the use of objective standards; and
(iii) Reasonable and non-discriminatory fees for the use of government infrastructure.

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