5G Technology: Opportunities, Challenges and Risks

(Disponible en français : La technologie 5G : Possibilités, défis et risques)

Wireless technologies have made significant strides in recent decades. The first generation (paging services) was followed by the second and third generations (voice and messaging services and Internet access), and then by the fourth generation (4G or Long Term Evolution [LTE]) with video streaming. The fifth generation (5G) is expected to be available globally starting in 2020. While the opportunities of 5G technology are certainly promising, its deployment also comes with challenges and risks.

Opportunities

5G technology will be able to achieve significantly greater performance standards than previous generations. Under optimal conditions, it will offer

  • a download speed of up to 20 gigabits (Gb) per second, 200 times faster than with current 4G technology;
  • latency (time delay required to transmit data from the source to the destination) of less than one millisecond, whereas the standard for 4G technology is 50 milliseconds; and
  • a much higher connection density, from a standard of 2,000 devices per km2 to one million devices per km2.

This greater performance will accelerate the development of several new and existing technologies, including the Internet of Things (IoT) – devices (such as appliances) that can transmit data over the Internet. The figure below shows examples of applications that could be made possible by 5G technology.

Figure 1 shows examples of 5G technology being applied in people’s daily lives. Here we see a person shopping online from home using virtual reality; a farm with a connected tractor and where land irrigation is facilitated by ground sensors that send signals to a smartphone; smart traffic lights; a connected vehicle; a connected home where several functions can be managed from a smartphone, including lighting, heating/cooling and locks; an ambulance connected to the hospital to allow emergency treatment to begin even before arrival; and a bank that allows customers to conduct transactions remotely with their mobile devices.

Among other things, 5G technology will allow networks to be sliced, meaning that the same physical infrastructure can host several logical networks. As a result, an Internet service provider could provide various services with different performance characteristics (e. g., download speed, latency or download usage limits) on the same physical network to meet a particular need. However, network slicing may not be fully compatible with the current principle of net neutrality, and the federal government may need to determine whether this is consistent with the relevant legislation.

The deployment of 5G technology could provide significant economic benefits in Canada and elsewhere. For example, according to an analysis prepared by Accenture, 5G technology could contribute, by 2026, to the creation of 250,000 permanent jobs and an annual increase in Canada’s gross domestic product of nearly $40 billion. However, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the extent of the benefits resulting from 5G technology will depend on how quickly it is deployed and adopted, as well as the ability of the regulatory environment to adapt.

Challenges

A. Spectrum management

A combination of low (less than 1 gigahertz [GHz]), medium (between 1 GHz and 10 GHz) and high (above 10 GHz) frequencies is required to meet the coverage, capacity and speed requirements of 5G technology. In Canada, spectrum management is the responsibility of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED). Various telecommunications companies have asked ISED to issue more licences for 5G technology. According to an international report on 5G technology, Canada lags behind several countries, such as Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, in the mid-band spectrum.

In Canada, there are already plans to reserve part of the 600-megahertz (MHz) band for 5G technology. However, the assignment of part of the 3,500 MHz and 3,800 MHz bands has been delayed, as these bands are already in use, particularly for fixed wireless service in rural areas. ISED is therefore holding consultations on how to maximize these bands to meet everyone’s needs, and it is planning to hold a public auction in 2020 to allocate a portion to 5G technology. ISED has also proposed to review all bands above 20 GHz in order to assign part of them to 5G technology within five years.

B. Regulation of wireless infrastructure

In 2018, there were approximately 13,000 wireless antenna locations in Canada. This number is expected to increase as the IoT evolves dramatically with the introduction of 5G technology. It is estimated that the number of connected objects could jump by several billion in the next decade, resulting in a significant increase in connectivity needs. Small cell antennas (the size of a shoebox) will be used to expand the network and meet increased connectivity needs. They could be installed on various kinds of infrastructure, such as street lights, bus shelters and public buildings.

Several telecommunications companies have raised concerns to ISED about the management of small cell antenna locations. In their view, it may be difficult to access these locations owned by various stakeholders, which would hinder the large-scale deployment of this type of antenna. In addition, some stakeholders believe that the regulations surrounding antennas may not be adapted to the needs of 5G technology. In fact, these regulations were made with earlier networks in mind that used fewer but larger antennas. In addition, a few companies have recommended that ISED establish a national framework of best practices to facilitate the deployment of small cell antennas.

Risks

A. Public health

5G technology raises certain public health concerns. The health effects of radiofrequency (RF) radiation have been the subject of numerous studies, with mixed results. However, there is little data on the impact of 5G technology in the specific case of individuals who may be exposed to a higher concentration of RF energy due to the greater number of antennas that will be used. In a publication on RF energy and safety, the Government of Canada states that devices equipped with 5G technology will use frequency ranges already covered by Canadian limits and will have to meet RF energy exposure requirements.

In Canada, RF energy is managed and regulated. In addition, Health Canada has set guidelines for exposure to this type of energy. Safety Code 6 is based on Health Canada’s research and published scientific studies. This code was last revised in 2014. For its part, ISED regulates wireless and related infrastructure and requires it to comply with the limits set out in Safety Code 6. ISED also runs several programs to inspect antenna installations to ensure that they meet requirements.

B. Huawei’s equipment

For some time now, Huawei – a major Chinese manufacturer of 5G-compatible devices – has been the focus of security concerns over its deployment of this technology. According to various sources, several security breaches have been identified in the software and firmware used in Huawei’s devices. Additionally, a report from the United Kingdom’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) Oversight Board concludes that the Board is not confident that Huawei’s plan to address these concerns is sufficient. Furthermore, Chinese law requires companies to cooperate with national intelligence services, raising concerns about possible Chinese government espionage through Huawei’s devices. As a result, some countries, such as the United States, Australia and Japan, have banned Huawei from their networks while the United Kingdom has decided to grant it partial access to its networks.

Huawei’s role over the development of 5G equipment also raises security concerns in Canada, although the federal government has not yet revealed its intentions regarding the Chinese company’s role in the development of Canada’s 5G infrastructure. During his appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, Scott Jones, Deputy Chief, Information Technology Security with the Communications Security Establishment, stated that

you don’t want one vendor and only one vendor. That makes you vulnerable across your entire spectrum and across all of your telecommunications companies to the exact same vulnerability. You want to build in different vendors … That bakes in a large amount of security just because you can’t easily traverse up and down the so-called telecommunications stack. That’s one of the key elements for 5G.

The security aspect of 5G networks will likely remain an important issue as Canada develops its networks.

Author: Sarah Lemelin-Bellerose, Library of Parliament

One thought on “5G Technology: Opportunities, Challenges and Risks

  1. Canadians need assurances regarding the safety of 5G RFs effects on humans, animals, birds and insect populations. Huawei 5G adds another level of insecurity and our relationship with our allies.

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