OTTAWA — The governments of Canada, Ontario and Quebec are partnering with some of the world's digital heavyweights to usher in the next generation of wireless technology.
A $400-million public-private investment will create a corridor of 5G wireless test beds through Canada's two largest provinces, aimed at giving companies a chance to experiment with new ideas and products that are only now becoming possible thanks to recent breakthroughs in telecommunication technology.
While many estimate it will take years before 5G is widely rolled out to the Canadian mass market, it's being billed as the wireless backbone to futuristic technologies including driverless cars, remotely controlled complex surgeries, and download speeds up to 100 times faster than today's 4G networks.
"5G is the gateway to the future and we are just on the brink of this technological revolution," Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said Monday at a funding announcement in Ottawa.
The new project is called ENCQOR — Evolution of Networked Services through a Corridor in Quebec and Ontario for Research and Innovation — and will allow an estimated 1,000 small and medium-sized businesses to plug into an early 5G platform for research and development.
Ontario, Quebec and the federal government have each pledged about $67 million, while the remaining $200 million will come from five private-sector partners. Ericsson, Ciena Canada, Thales Canada, IBM Canada and CGI will lead the public-private partnership, which is expected to "secure" more than 4,000 jobs, 1,800 of which will be specialized in 5G.
Karl Sasseville, a spokesman for Bains, clarified that those jobs are made up of existing positions within the five private-sector partners that will be repurposed for the project.
Borje Ekholm, CEO of Swedish telecom giant Ericsson, said Canada is "leapfrogging" to the front of 5G technology with its commitment to wireless innovation. When people think of national infrastructure they often think of roads and streets, Ekholm said.
"We believe the future highways will all be digital," he said.
Ekholm said he expects the test-bed technology to be deployed later this year and become operational by early 2019.
The government estimates information and communications technology contributed $76 billion to the country's gross domestic product in 2017.
One of the first looks at the potential of 5G technology came at the recent Pyeongchang Winter Games, where a test network powered self-driving vehicles, virtual reality content, and an app that allowed viewers to access multiple camera angles of events.
But these experiences weren't open to just anyone with a smartphone or tablet. Accessing the next generation wireless networks will require consumers to upgrade to a new device with updated hardware.
It's expected that the rollout of 5G networks will also help bolster internet access for rural communities that currently have poor broadband connections.
Last month, Bell and Huawei announced a trial launch of so-called wireless-to-the-home technology that's being seen as a precursor to how 5G would extend the availability of high-speed internet access. Rather than having sparsely populated rural areas wired for internet access, a wireless transmitter can establish a connection with nearby homes that are outfitted with the right modem.
Facebook is also working on so-called high altitude platform station (HAPS) technology, which would see solar-powered unmanned drones help provide internet access in rural and remote areas.
The role of 5G in an increasingly digital world has also become political.
U.S. President Donald Trump blocked Singapore-based Broadcom's US$117 billion hostile buyout bid for U.S. chip maker Qualcomm — which has invested heavily in the race to 5G — saying it would risk national security by opening the door to foreign data theft and espionage. Some American officials have also expressed concerns that Chinese companies, such as Huawei, could take a larger, or even a dominant, role in setting 5G technology and standards and practices.
— With files from Michael Oliveira in Toronto and The Associated Press
Geordon Omand , The Canadian Press