What is a 5G network without any devices capable of using it? That’s the question facing Canadian consumers after Rogers, the country’s largest wireless carrier, announced that it’s beginning to roll out 5G service in four major cities but it won’t actually have 5G hardware to sell for some time.
The big picture is that Canada has technically become North America’s second 5G country, even if the vast majority of Canadians won’t actually be able to use the network for a while. According to Rogers, preliminary 5G service is now active and awaiting device availability in downtown Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, with over 20 more 5G markets scheduled by the end of 2020. Several sports stadiums, including the Rogers Centre, Scotiabank Arena, and Rogers Arena, are also getting localized 5G networks — seemingly as a tentative way to see how sports-enhancing apps develop.
Rogers’ path to 5G hasn’t been entirely straightforward. Last year, the company made a $1.7 billion investment in 600MHz spectrum for 5G, seemingly following U.S. carrier T-Mobile’s strategy of relying on low band frequencies for nationwide coverage. At the time, Rogers said it would also use 3.5GHz mid band and millimeter wave high band spectrum in its network. But the company now says it’s launching 5G using 2.5GHz spectrum, with the promise of adding 600MHz “later this year” and 3.5GHz frequencies “in the future.” It’s unclear whether Rogers’ stadium installations will use millimeter wave 5G, as U.S. carrier Verizon has focused on densely packed arenas.
The spectrum changes might have something to do with 5G device availability. Some 5G phone and hotspot makers have already released 2.5GHz devices for fourth-place U.S. carrier Sprint, and it’s possible the same or similar devices could be shipped to Canada. Phones with both 600MHz and 2.5GHz 5G support are expected to become available over the next several months. Based on our testing, 2.5GHz 5G devices can deliver major improvements over current 4G speeds — performance in the 500Mbps range — while 600MHz 5G delivers speeds in the sub-300Mbps range, but over much longer distances.
Rogers’ network launch announcement was somewhat obscured by yesterday’s news that the carrier is working with Verizon and other international carriers through the 5G Future Forum, a group hoping to standardize 5G apps and edge network tower gear for consistent global performance. Like many other carriers, Rogers says it has chosen Ericsson as its network hardware provider for 5G. Smaller rival Videotron said last year that it had selected Samsung network gear for a more regionally targeted Canadian launch in late 2020.
Despite the lack of devices, Rogers says it’s launching 5G with the promise of unlimited data and no overage fees — providing customers pick Rogers Infinite data plans. As of today, Infinite plans start at $75 Canadian ($57 U.S.) for a single line and are subject to reduced speeds after hitting a 10GB usage limit. It’s unclear how those caps will work with 5G, which is capable of transferring that volume of data in mere seconds, depending on network capabilities.