What’s the deal with 5G?

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What is 5G? Why is it important? Why is everyone talking about it? What are the pros and cons? All valid questions, but not all of them have answers.  

5G is the next generation of mobile wireless network. It’s supposed to be 100 times quicker than current technology. We’ve heard you can download a full-length feature film in a matter of seconds. Speeds like this would benefit people when they are on the move and provide an important communication component connecting apps, edge devices and services necessary to enable smart city infrastructure.  

5G is a real estate play

5G can be a great thing for distributing mobile apps and capacity wise for mobile users…but it also can be used by Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs) to lock-up real estate for small cells needed to distribute the short-range 5G signals, lock-out competitors since the CRTC has ruled against Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) for now, so there are no third-party 5G providers that can compete over ILEC 5G facilities, and lock-in consumers so they have less choice of providers.

There’s currently a “race” to offer 5G in densely populated urban areas, particularly in wealthier neighbourhoods. It’s supposed to be available in select cities this year on a “pilot basis,” and then it will start a wider rollout through 2022. Incumbent telecom providers and vendors of 5G equipment have done a successful job at co-opting governments into propagating the idea that this is a race between jurisdictions and to the winner will go the spoils. For example, the federal government on March 19, 2018 announced $200 million funding to create a 5G infrastructure “corridor” between Windsor and Montreal. To which Bell sent out a press release applauding the federal government’s initiative. Bell noted in the release that, “5G network development a key part of Bell's lead in global wireless innovation.” Notably, 5G requires fibre-optic connectivity to the small cell antenna nodes to provide the capacity and scalability necessary to backhaul the data rich traffic from subscribers and many small tower or microcells that must be erected due to distance limitations of 5G signals as shown below in Figure 1. So, wealthier areas will have even greater fibre diffusion than they enjoy today and rural communities will be left wanting.

More than anything, the advent of 5G is an opportunity for ILECs to lock-up real estate in the form of municipal infrastructure suitable for attachment of 5G antenna and gear, such as street light poles. The agreements being put forward by Bell, Telus, and Rogers are 20-year agreements with two 5-year renewal clauses, which are virtually automatic. Municipalities should not be locking themselves into these agreements on an ad hoc basis, rather, they must develop carefully thought out strategies and municipal access agreements with the public’s interest, not the provider interest foremost.

The importance of carrier-neutrality

The key is that all broadband infrastructure, including 5G infrastructure, is carrier-neutral, meaning that the ILEC provider infrastructure is accessible to all third-party providers. This means that there are no price and non-price behaviours of the ILECs limiting equal access which is the case when the ILECs own everything. Equal access may yet be mandated by the CRTC as the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) has directed that the CRTC revisit their decision that MVNOs don’t have a right of access to provide service over ILEC 5G infrastructure. But should they support it or not, you need to have in writing that the quid pro quo for allowing the ILECs to attach the infrastructure and network service is carrier-neutral.  

I recommend municipalities consider erecting attachment infrastructure of their own (poles) that are dedicated to 5G attachments in strategic locations so the municipality can enable multiple 5G providers to attach to increase competition, and so the municipality can control the aesthetic and generate additional revenue for attachments by enabling more TSPs to attach in addition to the ILECs.

The one-time cost to erect a pole is about $3,000 and has virtually no ongoing maintenance costs. Each pole could be connected by municipally-owned conduit and fibre cable. Municipalities could earn revenue from pole attachments and dark fibre leasing fees, and if municipalities light the network, they could provide managed service for third party telecoms and provide municipal WiFi enabled Internet from each access node for municipal field worker access and Internet access for residents, businesses and tourists.  

The importance of municipal control

Municipalities should not sign long-term 5G attachment contracts that lock-in municipalities and effectively lock-out competitors. Municipalities will never have more leverage than they do right now with the ILECs as they are desperate to win the 5G real estate war. Once they have the attachment rights, getting the ILECs to do anything non-standard will be virtually impossible. So, now is the time for municipalities to come armed with a plan and their best poker faces on.

Furthermore, it is important that municipalities develop/update Municipal Access Agreements (MAA) that control how 5G infrastructure is deployed in their communities with an eye to achieving carrier-neutral, open-access infrastructure so all providers can compete on a level playing field with the incumbents. More competition will yield better services and lower rates for consumers.  

Deploying 5G needs fibre-optic glass for backhaul. So, 5G will be great for increasing fibre diffusion in urban neighbourhoods. If 5G is deployed in rural areas, it will require fibre glass for backhaul. This makes the economics of 5G deployments in rural areas problematic as distance to fibre between rural residents, businesses and the telecom providers’ fibre backbones remains a key barrier to said telecoms providing FTTP and 5G last mile services, which is bound to increase the digital divide between urban and rural Canadians.  

5G and the digital divide

The advent of 5G is likely to increase the broadband Internet gap between residents and businesses in rural areas versus large urban centres, and the gap is growing at an increasing rate. In lieu of FTTP for rural residents or availability of 5G and FTTP, the federal government has been doling out millions of dollars to Bell, Telus and Xplornet to deliver 50/10 Mbps. Moreover, the federal budget announced on March 19, 2019 promises hundreds of millions of dollars between now and 2030 to close the digital divide by providing 50/10 Mbps.  

If the solution is not symmetrical and scalable, then the federal government risks systemically entrenching the digital divide that has already existed for decades. The divide will continue to grow as telecom providers subsidized by taxpayers provide substandard service in rural areas while at the same time continuing to make FTTP investments in urban areas on their own dime.

Moreover, most of this funding will go to the incumbent telecom providers, which will reduce the ability of third-party providers to compete, weakening consumer choice, leading to poorer services and higher prices. This is exactly what has been happening with the Connect To Innovate (CTI) funding program as scathingly critiqued by the Auditor General last fall.  

Clearly, the new Minister of Rural Economic Development, Bernadette Jordan, didn’t get the Auditor General’s memo, because the federal government just announced $30 million in funding going to Xplornet and Bell, the very providers who are the source of the digital divide in the first place, to deliver 50/10 Mbps. The consequent negative economic and social impacts for everyone living and working in rural areas are intolerable to many of those I have interviewed across Canada. Indeed, every rural residence and business must have equitable access to the Internet with their urban peers and today that means up to 1 Gbps of symmetrical Internet access. Equitable access to the Internet is a determinant of one’s equal access to healthcare, education and marketplaces, and by equitable I mean the same price and performance regardless of a household’s geographic location or demographic characteristics.

Security concerns about 5G

According to an article in the Toronto Star, Huawei Technologies is the global leader in 5G technology, but their gear has been banned in the United States for fear of the networks being used for spying purposes. And Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, is involved in a lawsuit with the Canadian government, all while the U.S. is demanding extradition for her to face charges south of the border. I’m not going to get into the politics and potential lawbreaking and corruption, but this is obviously a serious series of hurdles to overcome to establish 5G networks in North America. The Canadian court recently ruled that Wanzhou’s extradition to the US is granted.   

In a press release, Network World wrote, “Network security concerns remain an issue with the upcoming 5G and 6G wireless network standards. That's because security measures aren't being adopted in new 5G standards, and there's a newly discovered potential for Man-in-the-Middle attacks in terahertz-based 6G networks, multiple research studies have discovered. One of those studies — a formal analysis of 5G authentication conducted by scientists from ETH Zurich, the University of Lorraine/INRIA, and the University of Dundee — found that criminals will be able intercept 5G communications and steal data because ‘critical security gaps are present.’”

That’s in part because “security goals are underspecified” and there’s a “lack of precision” in the 3GPP standards, they say. In a second, unrelated report published last month by researchers at Brown University, Rice University, and the University at Buffalo, scientists have discovered serious vulnerabilities in 5G’s successor: terahertz data communications networks.

Health concerns about 5G

What I’m also interested in at the moment is the potential health risks associated with 5G technology. In order for 5G to work properly, transponders will have to be placed very close to each other in urban areas, as shown in Figure 1, which will increase one’s exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic radiation. What this tight distribution of the nodes also shows is that low dwelling density rural communities will never see 5G or will receive some flavour of it at much lower radio frequencies resulting in much reduced information carrying capacity or bandwidth.   

Therefore, telecom providers’ transponders will have to be tightly packed into urban areas, perhaps placed every 150 metres, increasing radiation exposure. Big cities will have many thousands of them, and their deployment will be hard to control because 5G is supported by governments everywhere and legislation is being changed in some areas to ensure fast-track rollouts.

Eric Reguly, in his March 9, 2019 Globe and Mail piece, “When it comes to 5G health risks, what we don’t know might hurt us,” he writes, “the health concern is emerging as potentially the bigger obstacle, one that just might delay 5G everywhere. It is starting to grab mainstream attention, even though more than a few scientists, among them McGill University’s Paul Héroux, a specialist on the health effects of electromagnetic fields, have been warning for years about the potential dangers of wireless networks.”

“The public figure asking the toughest questions about 5G’s health implications is Richard Blumenthal, the former attorney-general of Connecticut and onetime scourge of the tobacco industry, who is now the state’s senior U.S. senator. A Democrat, he is a member of the Senate’s committee on commerce, science and transportation and has a lawyer’s talent for sharp questioning. The committee has been peppering senior members of the wireless industry with some uncomfortable questions.”

In December, Blumenthal asked the telecoms regulator to investigate whether the high frequencies used by 5G systems pose a health risk. “The stark, simple fact is the health hazards are unknown and unstudied and that is a sign of neglect and disregard on the part of the Federal Communications Commission that seems unacceptable,” he said at the time.

During a Senate committee hearing, the senator asked Brad Gillen, vice-president of U.S. Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), whether the industry was conducting any independent research into the health effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation (EMR). “To my knowledge, there’s no active studies being backed by the industry today,” Gillen replied.

Blumenthal seemed genuinely surprised by Gillen’s answer. “We’re kind of flying blind there so far as health and safety are concerned,” Blumenthal said.

So, watch out. If a wireless industry representative tells you that there is “no evidence” that 5G can be harmful, they’re not actually lying, for the simple reason that there is, in fact, no evidence. That’s because no long-term tests on the health effects of 5G networks have been conducted.

“That radiation may be safe, or it may not be; we don’t know. What we do know is that 5G is coming and it will be pervasive – at a certain point, you’d have to live in a lead-lined box to escape whatever radiation it produces. And if it does prove to be dangerous, many years may pass before we find out,” said Blumenthal.

Reguly closes by stating, “the technology is a marvel and could trigger enormous strides in innovation. But it may not be safe – we just don’t know. The 5G rush is crazy until we do know.”

The importance of ubiquity

Ubiquitous, highly available and scalable broadband infrastructure is the digital plumbing required to enable a smart country and it does not exist in most of our 3,700 municipalities.  Included in that statement are large cities (many of which have large rural areas due to amalgamations and have poorer urban neighbourhoods that are underserved), small cities, towns, villages and hamlets. The key is to achieve ubiquitous and equitable access to the Internet for all people, places and things as a baseline for the smart province of tomorrow like we see in Sweden, The Netherlands, Singapore, Japan, Catalonia, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia, for example.

My concern is that Canada’s relatively poor state of FTTP, and why it is so critical to our nation's competitiveness and our citizens’ well-being, is not well and commonly understood by legislators and regulators. The cart is before the horse (apps before connectivity) as we chase the next shiny object called “5G,” driven by an oligopoly of telecom providers bent on locking-in the country to their market dominant hegemony for decades to come.  

When one reads the strategies docs of the feds and provinces on healthcare, education, transportation, seniors, Aboriginal Peoples, justice, agriculture, energy and municipal affairs, and you search on the key words, “connectivity,” “broadband” or “Internet,” you will find nary a mention. This is because they think broadband Internet is a vertical problem only in rural areas that needs to be solved when it is actually a horizontal problem that cuts across all of the files that governments manage in all 3,700 municipalities in Canada.

I think it is because it is assumed that the connectivity required for all of the apps they plan to deliver is there today. But it’s not. 5G is part of the answer, but so too is FTTP, WiFi/WiMAX access media available on a carrier-neutral basis to all telecom providers and open-access to all users.  

Delivering “patient-centred healthcare,” “student-centred education,” and “citizen-centred government services,” to the household, which are the strategies of governments, won’t work because the connectivity in place today does not have the reliability, scalable capacity, symmetry, quality of service and security necessary to do so. This is the type of infrastructure our federal government should be investing in to serve the needs of all Canadians today and tomorrow, not in legacy services which takes our country backwards versus the OECD and G7 countries against which we are competing. We need a federal digital strategy that aims high and looks ahead – not one which aims low at “good enough” connectivity as we cannot drive our economy forward looking in the rear-view mirror at connectivity we should have had in 1999.

Campbell Patterson