Huawei in Canada and the internet of things

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Big inventions disrupt the age in which they appear, but in simpler times that disruption was slow in coming. In the 1920s only one in every three homes had a telephone, and most were attached to a ‘party line’ shared with other families. Most rural regions had no service whatsoever. Only 25 years ago photographers shared images over distance by printing and posting them. Then came the iPhone and the dawn of a disruption whose mind-boggling rate of public deployment has surpassed virtually every previous communications invention. 

Smartphone usage, in only a hard-to-believe 12 years, has topped 3 billion users worldwide, with the biggest gains coming in the Asia-Pacific region where Huawei intends to dominate. In fact, they intend to dominate globally.

Wireless networks infiltrated our lives in steps. The first generation (1G) enabled mobile voice communication. 2G added text messaging. 3G put us online with such devices as the Blackberry, and 4G sped the whole package up with data-intensive Internet 2.0 content like video streaming and multi-player gaming.

The next big network upgrade is imminent with 5G, a quantum leap in design that not only provides faster transmission speeds but also more widespread coverage to handle more connected devices and traffic types.

We’re not just talking phones, but infrastructure, autonomous vehicles, smart buildings, robotic machinery, and what is generally called the Internet of Things (IoT). Read Isaac Asimov as a primer, and then imagine your cell knowing you are in a supermarket and informing you of what barcodes are missing from your refrigerator. The broader social impact will hit everything from immersive education to remote patient care and monitoring. 

There are a few key steps before 5G reaches commercial and consumer markets, and a few key companies ready to enable deployment. Telecoms will have to upgrade their networks with gear manufactured by such players as Huawei, Ericsson, or Nokia. Phone makers will need to incorporate 5G-radio technology and design the gear for a 5G virtual world in mind.

Some are ready for launch. The Samsung S10+ comes loaded with more cameras than a TV news studio. Huawei’s futuristic Mate X will satisfy even the most diehard Star Trekkie by putting a phone that unfolds(!) into an eight-inch tablet in your jacket pocket. But all of this is academic until networks can support the remarkable features, and networks in Canada are terribly uneven.

Personal note: I’m writing this on 3G, in hilly terrain wherein I toss confetti when I get three bars of service. I’m located 40 kilometres NE of Parliament Hill in a G7 country. More than six million Canadians live in rural communities with similar or poorer quality of service (QoS).

The CRTC is responsible for the oversight of our wireless spectrum and it regularly holds public auctions for licences to operate in different wireless spectrum bands. It has already anticipated an auction for the 3500 MHz band that will be required for the eventual rollout of 5G networks in Canada, and has scheduled hearings for January 2020. 5G brings a different set of technical conditions, and companies have already submitted comments regarding how the spectrum should be made available.

Huawei Canada, for example, has proposed that certain areas of data traffic growth, such as vehicular traffic and control and hospital medical devices, should be deemed critical services and assigned specific licensed spectrum bands.

Some IoT applications will have to consider cultural predisposition. Canadians are just not embracing online grocery shopping. We lag well behind Americans in this new escapade and so, down the road, we’re not as likely to have our smart fridge tell the store what we expect to pick up at the drive-thru. We all, however, live in remote communities (Ottawa is remote from Toronto on a relative scale) and we have single-tier public healthcare.

5G is going to virtually reduce distance and increase QoS for healthcare delivery, not just between urban centres, but to rural and Arctic communities. The Chrétien Government committed resources to the expansion of CA*net4, Industry Canada’s fiber backbone, to remote and northern communities. I was involved in a number of these research projects and witnessed some remarkable things. The Trudeau government picked up this policy of “national access to broadband for all Canadians”.

Huawei has taken a keen interest in this aspect of the Canadian data landscape. It has already enabled more than 300,000 users to access the Internet at high speeds, and has provided cellular and fixed wireless to dozens of northern communities, including Grise Fiord, Iqaluit, and Inuvik. This was no small feat. If there’s one thing Canada has, it’s geography. Populations are very sparse, and costs go up the farther out a network reaches.

One great story is the Lac La Hache Pilot Project in central BC. Huawei collaborated with Quesnel and B.C-based ABC Communications to implement speeds of up to 100 megabits per second, doubling to quadrupling previous data rates in the 800-person town. They used technology known as “Massive MIMO” (multiple-input multiple output) that groups antennas together to boost efficiency and is a precursor to the 5G networks.

Canada’s natural attributes provide companies with a great test bed for research and deployment across vast distances and challenging terrains. This is particularly relevant to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations member states in 2015. It provides a shared blueprint for achieving 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), ranging from social progress to environmental stewardship.

Only one of the 17 goals specifically mentions the Internet. A subsection of Goal 9 aims to “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation” and “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.”

Be that as it may, every new form of communication throughout history has eventually brought with it an increase in the standard of living, literacy, and democratic stability. The application of networks and related technologies would undoubtedly serve the overall cause of improving the quality of life for populations worldwide. Further to this, Huawei unveiled Tech4ALL, a global inclusion initiative aimed at adding 500 million people to the digital global village over the next five years.

Back to those uneven Canadian networks. Not only are they uneven in terms of quality of service, but they are also mighty pricey. Canadians kvetch about cell phone rates about as much as we gripe about the weather. Ten years ago the Harper government was squawking about the high cost of cell service in Canada, generally recognized as the highest in the world on average. They proposed a fourth carrier be invited into the market, but the Big Three still dominate. They asked for the Big Three to come up with optional data packages, but have you seen your bill lately? Maybe they didn’t ask nicely.

The one thing the CRTC did accomplish under then-chair Jean-Pierre Blais was to declare Internet access a basic service for all Canadians. It had a warm feel to it, but corporate profit still trumps social profit for the country’s big data providers. It was only a year ago that the CRTC ordered Bell, Rogers and TELUS to formulate affordable data-only plans. Bell offered $30 per month for 500 megabytes, Rogers $25 per month for 400 MB etc. You could hear a pin drop. Sure, there is a bundle of discount carriers out there now, but their network coverage barely reaches beyond the burbs.

So why do the Telcos have the power that they do, and why does the CRTC need a policy Viagra to do anything about what Canadians feel is an unfair gouging? It’s not reasonable to compare our rates with the US, given the population and market competition. But 5G offers huge competitive and social advantages to a national economy, and Canada’s data rates following the costly network upgrades 5G will require will not help our rates go down. Opinion seems to swirl around the idea of more competition in the data market, but that has been trotted out as a solution on more than one occasion and under more than one government.

In December 2018, the CRTC announced the Big Three would offer at least one plan of $30 a month for 1 GB of data. Track your data usage for 1 GB and see how far that gets you into a one-month billing period, then imagine that rate and cost in a 5G world.

Maybe the Big Three simply have us by the bills. The last time long distance was free in Canada was that call Alexander Graham Bell made between Brantford and Paris, Ontario in 1876. The advent of 5G will bring about yet another big disruption and unimaginable new worlds of content and services. Consumers will simply have to be prepared to pay for it. We are Canadians, after all.