Ottawa telecom industry gearing up for high-potential 5G

Next-gen networks will revolutionize global communications, and Ottawa leaders believe local companies are primed to take advantage
CENGN
CENGN chief executive Ritch Dusome, right, and Boris Mimeur, director of engineering and operations. (Photo by Craig Lord)

There’s a buzz in the Capital. Business leaders from Kanata to Parliament Hill – telecom players, especially – have turned their eyes to the future: to next-generation networks, and the promise of 5G. The next generation of connectivity will deliver bandwidth more than 20 times faster than current speeds, but that’s just the start of what excites industry observers.

Ottawa tech magnate Sir Terry Matthews, the founder behind Mitel, Wesley Clover and hundreds of other startups, has stirred plenty of the hype around 5G. He and Mayor Jim Watson led a crusade to Queen’s Park in February, waving the Ottawa flag and declaring the capital a high-potential hub for developing and commercializing 5G in Canada.

Queen's Park
The tech delegation to Queen's Park included Terry Matthews, seen at far left.

Jenna Sudds, executive director of the Kanata North Business Association, was on that trip. She sees big players in 5G every day in her tech park: Mitel, Nokia, Ericsson and Ranzure Networks among them.

Huawei, another contender for the 5G throne, announced a $313-million investment in its Ottawa operations last year, ramping up previously announced plans to accelerate its next-gen network development. Mitel and Kanata neighbour DragonWave announced a partnership in 5G last year as well.

For Sudds, a specialization in next-generation networks is the logical progression for a city that grew its tech sector on the telecom boom of the ’90s.

“As a city, we need to look at our strengths,” she says. “It is digital communications, it is next-generation networks.”

Governments both provincially and federally seem to be paying close attention to 5G as well. Sudds believes Kanata’s networking expertise makes it a prime candidate for a slice of the federal government’s $950-million supercluster funding announced in its latest budget. Just a few weeks ago, the provincial government put its own stake in 5G, announcing $63 million in funding for the Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks (CENGN).

Funded through the federal government’s Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research program, Kanata-based CENGN is a consortium comprised of Invest Ottawa, Rogers, Cisco, Nokia and other multinational firms. Earlier this month, Mitel became the latest local company to officially join the next-gen consortium.

The organization aims to bridge gaps between innovation and commercialization in Canada by helping startups validate their project ideas and training students with skills suited for the modern telecom industry.

Many of the roles CENGN fills today were previously filled by Nortel, an industry leader that could incubate companies and give hundreds of students a hands-on education.

“That no longer exists,” says Richard Waterhouse, vice president of business development and marketing.

The advent of 5G also has the potential to fill another void left by Nortel. While Ottawa is still home to scores of telecom talent, it lost visibility as a global high-tech hub with Nortel’s downfall. The locally-based engineering teams working on 5G could once again give the nation’s capital high-tech bragging rights and draw more attention – not to mention investment dollars and skilled workers – to Ottawa.

Development of 5G is increasingly critical, not only for Ottawa, but for the country. Canada was ranked 14th worldwide last year in the World Economic Forum’s annual Networked Readiness Index, which measures nations’ preparedness to capitalize on digital revolutions such as 5G connectivity.

“The reason that CENGN exists is that the telecom industry in Canada is falling behind,” Waterhouse says.

"The innovation that’s here, and the skills and level of knowledge, is second to none in Canada."

CENGN provides its multinational partners a forum for what CEO Ritch Dusome calls “co-opetition”: A place where they can get together to put their rivalries aside, discuss ideas and provide input on developing network innovations, but compete again when they leave the room. Waterhouse says the network technologies of the future will require immense interoperability: “You cannot develop in a vacuum these days.”

In order to find out exactly what 5G is, and what the technology might mean for Ottawa businesses, CENGN seems like it might be a good place to start.

Boris Mimeur, director of engineering and operations at CENGN, says 5G isn’t just about faster network infrastructure. It’s about smarter, more flexible infrastructure.

Picture a 16-lane highway: As our networks stand, eight lanes of traffic probably flow east and eight lanes flow west. Today, using 4G capabilities, networks are unable to easily anticipate high demand, which could leave you stuck in a traffic jam while other lanes move stress-free. Eventually, we could open and close lanes as needed, but it’s far from responsive.

With the advent of 5G, the highway becomes elastic by nature. The network itself can identify, by geography or activity, where bandwidth is needed and allocate it accordingly. In an instant, 15 lanes could be opened for eastbound traffic.

The potential of an elastic network is incredible, especially when partnered with technologies such as artificial intelligence and autonomous drive. Take smart cities, for example: Home fire alarms could automatically trigger an orchestrated response across the city’s traffic lights, guiding emergency response teams to a blaze with almost no interruptions.

“It’s giving control to the infrastructure,” Mimeur says.

Next-generation networks will serve as an enabler for autonomous vehicles, as well. Latency connectivity, a measure of how rapidly network infrastructure makes connections, will be vastly improved on 5G. The importance can’t be understated: You may not even notice if your mobile device skips a half-second when it’s loading a web page, but if your self-driving car is detecting an oncoming vehicle, a half-second delay is half a second too long.

In short, the potential uses – and commercializations – of 5G are vast.

“This is a platform that is going to develop an awful lot of needs,” Waterhouse says.

Many in the city believe that the work being done in Ottawa and Kanata North, whether inside CENGN or by its multinational partners, is integral to the commercial success of the entire nation. “The innovation that’s here, and the skills and level of knowledge, is second to none in Canada,” Waterhouse says.

While Waterhouse says global competitors such as South Korea, Silicon Valley and Scandinavian countries are excelling in 5G R&D, he believes Canada’s capital has the potential to be a world leader, and looks no farther than outside CENGN’s windows for proof. From there, he can see the parking lot at Nokia, and says there’s never an empty spot.

“If you go to Silicon Valley, their parking lots aren’t full. We really are in a growth stage and it’s really exciting.”