COVID-19 crashes into Canada's 5G launch plans

Rogers launched it with vendor Ericsson in a few cities, but BCE decided to delay its launch with vendor Nokia. Telus, meantime, appears to be waiting in the wings with its own vendor, China's Huawei.

5G was supposed to catapult Canada into a leading global position in the telecom industry, driving a "significant improvement as it relates to productivity, innovation, efficiency and importantly digital transformation," at least according to Telus' CEO.

And then COVID-19 struck.

Now, like just about everything else in the world, 5G in Canada is on hold while stay-at-home orders stymie the spread of the new coronavirus.

"We are ready with our initial 5G network, but frankly we've made – frankly we don't think that it's the right time right now to officially launch it for marketing purposes," explained BCE CEO Mirko Bibic last week during the company's quarterly conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks. "I just don't think that customers are paying attention to this right now and that's not what is top of mind for our customer base. They have other priorities understandably."

Continued Bibic: "As the economy opens up, we'll have more news on that, on when we will launch our initial 5G services."

BCE had announced Nokia as its first 5G vendor in February, with promises to launch "as next generation smartphones become available." But BCE quietly began selling the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G, Galaxy S20+ 5G and Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G almost the same week Canadian officials issued quarantine orders.

Rogers, on the other hand, started its 5G rollout in January with vendor Ericsson. The company said that in the first phase of its buildout it would deploy 5G in its 2.5GHz spectrum in downtown Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, and that later this year it would expand that effort to include transmissions in 600MHz across broader areas. That effort continues, albeit without much fanfare.

Finally, Telus CEO Darren Entwistle had plenty to say about the potential of 5G for the company and for Canada in February during his company's quarterly conference call with analysts.

"It is important to our company as it is to our country and we are going to be extremely thoughtful as we progress through the [5G] roadmap," he said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks.

But in his February comments he declined to provide a concrete 5G launch date: "I'm not going to pre-announce our 5G launch plans for competitive reasons," he explained. "So when we launch 5G from a network readiness to device availability to see accretion, then the press release will go out that morning."

However, the operator's 5G launch certainly appeared imminent in February: "Telus will begin rolling out its 5G network shortly, and our initial module will be with Huawei," CFO Doug French told CBC News in February. Canada is still reviewing US claims that Huawei equipment threatens Canadian national security.

So far Telus has not launched 5G, though in April it did tout the performance of its 4G network, reiterating its plan to invest $40 billion over the next three years for 5G.

Canada's 5G difficulties come as network-monitoring company OpenSignal reports that the country now ties with South Korea in terms of speedy wireless networks. The firm said that operators in both countries now provide average wireless download speeds of 59 Mbit/s – making Canada and South Korea tied for the fastest wireless market in the world.

It's also worth noting that the coronavirus pandemic has reportedly delayed South Korean operators' push to launch the standalone version of 5G.

Importantly, Canadian executives said that the government is still planning to auction wide swathes of 3.5GHz spectrum for 5G later this year – such spectrum has been hailed as ideal for 5G, and that auction will undoubtedly supercharge 5G offerings in the country.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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