5G test platform readies Ottawa companies for primetime

5g

The vast market potential offered by the next generation of networking has Ottawa tech firms taking advantage of a local testbed designed to help fine-tune their solutions to 5G frequencies.

Ottawa is one of five hubs in Ontario and Quebec offering a pre-commercial 5G testbed as part of a $400-million initiative dubbed ENCQOR – a collaboration between provincial and federal levels of government and a series of multinational tech companies.

Bayview Yards is home to a closed testing environment equipped with next-gen telecom equipment developed by partners such as Ericsson and Ciena. Ottawa-based companies can apply to test their solutions’ capabilities with 5G networks or develop new products to take advantage of the next phenomenon in networking.

While the fourth-generation of LTE has made smartphone connectivity the mainstream in urban environments, 5G networks are expected to dwarf the capabilities of 4G LTE. Ultra-low latency will enable applications such as self-driving vehicles and other smart city solutions and rural environments will have more reliable access to regular internet connections.

“5G infrastructure is coming and it’s going to be ubiquitous,” says Doug Bellinger, CTO of Martello Technologies. The Kanata-based company is one of the local firms putting the ENCQOR testbed to use.

“All kinds of mission-critical things that we don’t really do on the internet today (will be performed) on 5G networks very soon,” Bellinger tells Techopia.

“It’s clearly worth orders of magnitude more to be great in 5G than it is to be great in 4G.”

Martello hit a milestone late last year when it completed the first phase of testing its solution’s compatibility with 5G networks via ENCQOR. Bellinger says the company, which develops software to troubleshoot issues on communication networks, sees an enormous market opportunity in scaling its solution to 5G networks.

While the company is already able to, for example, help clients maintain the quality of video calls over the internet, the ability to troubleshoot mission-critical services – such as autonomous vehicles or remote surgery applications – represents an exciting new frontier.

“Our work gets more valuable the more important services are and the more users are using those services,” Bellinger says. “It’s clearly worth orders of magnitude more to be great in 5G than it is to be great in 4G.”

Readying for overseas expansion

Ottawa startup SnowM is using the ENCQOR platform as a local proving ground for global markets.

As its name might suggest, the local startup currently develops an Internet of Things-based solution for snow-clearing contractors. SnowM’s devices – small objects set up on a customer’s property – give plow drivers a more accurate indicator of which homes to clear than traditional GPS or physical descriptions can provide. It’s a solution that SnowM could extend to other industries where precise tracking is needed along a route, such as perimeter security or property management.

The company’s devices operate on traditional 4G networks, but SnowM CEO Madan Kanala sees an opportunity to provide a more granular view of Ottawa roads with 5G technology. For example, he imagines a day when his company’s devices can provide road crews with real-time updates on where snow is accumulating on local roads and plan services around those smart city insights.

Beyond Ottawa, however, SnowM is using the ENCQOR platform to prepare itself for business overseas. In addition to 5G, the local testbed allows SnowM to make use of narrowband-IoT networks – a subset of 4G LTE that optimizes the battery life of IoT devices.

Kanala says the company is gearing up to tackle contract opportunities in India, where narrowband IoT is already live, and has relied on ENCQOR to prove it can meet the country’s networking requirements.

“I cannot travel to New York, I cannot travel to India just to test my platform on their network,” Kanala tells Techopia. “Right now, I just drive from Kanata to Bayview Yards and the work is done. That’s the value these guys are providing.”

ENCQOR’s partners also benefit from providing their tech to burgeoning SMEs. Companies such as Ciena put out calls for projects on the platform that tech companies and academic institutions can bid on, giving smaller players the chance to collaborate on 5G initiatives with the biggest names in the industry today.

Bellinger notes that companies like Martello can provide agility on specific projects that these enterprises don’t always have internally. He considers it a decent tradeoff for access to technology that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for the firm to access itself.

“A small company like us being able to access a fully built-out 5G environment … that would be a huge expense if we had to do it ourselves.”

Rogers Communications took the first step towards next-gen connectivity in early 2020, turning on its 5G networks in areas including downtown Ottawa. While other telecoms have been cagey on when their networks will begin to roll out, local companies such as Martello and SnowM are gearing up to tackle the market as soon as the switch is flicked.