with CLIPREVIEWED learn the articleUpgrade Now or Wait? Canada’s 5G Secrets Revealed
5G has arrived in Canada, and the carriers really want you to sign up. They’re eager to get the benefits of packing data more efficiently into their 5G channels, which lets them handle more people on unlimited data plans without performance suffering. But will 5G make a difference to you when you’re making a call or watching a video? I came to Montreal to find out.
In our Fastest Mobile Networks Canada research, ok a look at 4G and 5G performance in 20 cities across the country, finding that Canada’s wireless carriers are holding up under the strain of the new unlimited plans. What we didn’t do is a deep dive into whether switching from 4G to 5G makes a difference. I headed onto the streets of Montreal to test the Bell/Telus and Rogers networks, using a Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Bell and Telus share a radio network in Montreal—their differences are in their core Internet networks and in phone firmware—so I focused on Bell here. Videotron doesn’t yet offer 5G.
The results in a nutshell: Switching between 4G and 5G on the same phone on the shared Bell/Telus network made a real difference. There was less of a difference on our Rogers phone. Some Rogers customers will want to hold off on switching until new phones come out that work better with Rogers’ 5G network. But if your local 4G airwaves are crowded and slow, or if you get a lot of use from an unlimited data plan, it may still make sense to get a 5G phone now.
5G in Canada: A Quick Primer
The Canadian state of 5G is a little different from what you’ll see in the US. Canada never auctioned off millimeter wave, so there’s nothing like Verizon’s “ultra wideband.” Rather, Canadian carriers have installed 5G on channels that they could have used for 4G. Rogers has channels very similar to T-Mobile’s “nationwide” and mid-band 5G, but not as wide as T-Mobile’s mid-band channels. Bell and Telus, right now, are using a 5G channel very similar to a popular 4G band.
Bell, Telus, and Rogers all treat 5G as an add-on to 4G right now. At any given time, most of your connection will be 4G. If you’re lucky, and you’re in the coverage area, your phone will potentially add a 5G channel as well (though it’s a little more complicated than that, as I’ll get to below).
The 5G experience will get broader and somewhat better over the next year as the carriers extend coverage beyond their current limited areas. The next big transformation for Canadian 5G will likely come in 2022. In mid-2021, the government will auction a prime chunk of fresh, clear airwaves around 3.5GHz for 5G. Until then, Canada’s carriers have to work with the airwaves they have now.
How Fast Is 5G in Canada?
When Bell and Telus signal is strong, both 4G and 5G speeds are great, and 5G speeds are higher than 4G. At two locations with very good Bell signal, I first managed 855Mbps down on 5G and 589Mbps down on 4G, and then 550Mbps down on 5G and 463Mbps down on 4G.
There wasn’t a huge difference in responsiveness, because the phone is still combining 4G and 5G, so it can’t take great advantage of 5G’s lower latency. There was no noticeable difference in upload speeds.
With Rogers, 4G and 5G gave me similar download speeds. In a good signal location, I saw 192Mbps on 4G and 195Mbps on 5G. In a different one, I got 193Mbps on 4G and 254Mbps on 5G. A third location showed 188Mbps on 4G and 195Mbps on 5G. Rogers did show noticeably faster upload speeds on 5G than 4G. And as we said in Fastest Mobile Networks Canada, Rogers’ performance may get noticeably better with 2021’s phones, which may be better able to handle Rogers’ 5G frequency setup.
Rogers emphasized its focus on keeping its speeds consistently good, rather than having spectacular peak speeds. “While speed is one important component, in the long term, we believe a focus on all aspects of reliability (availability, consistency) is critical to ensure that we continue delivering an experience that best meets our customer demands,” a Rogers spokesperson told me.
There’s no question that 5G uses the carriers’ airwaves more efficiently and could help achieve that goal of consistency. In general, I saw higher (or the same) speeds while using around 10MHz less spectrum. Now, this could just be because the 5G airwaves aren’t as crowded as the 4G ones are. But it could also be a genuine efficiency improvement, which means the carriers will be able to serve more people—and more unlimited data plans—on the same airwaves without slowing down. That alone may be why carriers are eager to make the switch.
One note: our results were specific to Montreal. The carriers have varying amounts of airwaves in various cities. In Quebec, for instance, Rogers is somewhat constrained by its coworking agreement with Videotron. But some of the factors here—most notably, Bell and Telus’s more easily combined channels—are true nationwide.
Let’s go deep.
Your Unlimited Plan Needs 5G
One thing I saw here in Montreal is that using 5G, the carriers are able to deliver the same or better speeds while using less spectrum. That means there’s more room for more people to use the network. This is very good! It means a more consistent experience, fewer blocked connections, and more potential for affordable unlimited plans. Canadian carriers have only recently amped up their most popular plans beyond a few gigabytes per person. As customers sign up for bigger plans, the carriers need more capacity.
This may be the real reason the carriers are switching over to 5G now. Our Fastest Mobile Networks Canada 2020 tests showed that Canadian carriers are holding their own on speed, even as subscribers to the new unlimited plans use twice as much data as their subscribers previously did. The added efficiency of 5G could be a key component of how the carriers will handle the added traffic.
That’s why your Canadian carrier wants you to buy a 5G phone so badly. As you suck down gigabytes of data, they need you to do it on the clearest, most efficient channels for them to be able to maintain performance with all of this added usage. “Better speed” is a good marketing message for 5G, but the underlying plea is to use 5G because things are going to get really clogged up if you don’t.
It’s important to be aware that right now, if your Canadian phone says “5G,” most of the airwaves you’re using will be 4G and have existing 4G efficiency. Previously, carrier engineers have told me they expect to get 25–30% better efficiency using 5G than 4G in the same frequencies. That does seem to be happening! But it’s possible that the 5G channels are just really lightly used because few people have 5G phones, and as more people sign up for 5G, that efficiency boost could decline.
So if you’re looking for added performance from 5G—truly blistering speeds—Bell and Telus can deliver right now. If you’re in an urban area where you generally struggle with speeds because of congestion, a 5G phone on any of the major carriers will help. We just don’t know how much those gains will extend into the future as all the people currently crowding the 4G channels instead crowd into 5G.
There’s one more twist. If you’re a Rogers subscriber, I’ve been advising waiting until at least next March for your 5G phone if possible. Explaining why means we’re going to have to get really into the weeds of wireless frequencies.
Why are Bell and Telus showing so much better performance than Rogers? Your phone’s connection generally combines three or four channels of airwaves at one time. Combining (or aggregating) more channels means higher speeds. Both sets of carriers used a total of 100MHz of airwaves in my tests, but Rogers’ layout is more difficult for phones to combine. That doesn’t mean Rogers’ airwaves are being wasted. It just means each individual phone gets a smaller slice at once, and thus lower speeds.
At various times, Bell showed that it was using the channels below. Our Bell phone used up to 85MHz of the 100MHz it showed access to in our 4G and 5G tests.
Bell/Telus 4G Channels
Two channels of 7, each sized 20MHzChannel 2, size 20MHzChannel 4/66, size 15MHzChannel 29, size 10MHzChannel 13, size 5MHz
Total 95MHz of available 4G channels
Bell/Telus 5G Channel
Channel n66, size 10MHz
These happen to combine pretty well. You can’t run channels 13 and 29 at the same time, but they’re each pretty small. You can’t run 66 and n66 at the same time, but you will be able to with next year’s phones. At most, they combined in these ways:
2/7/7/29/66 = 85MHz2/7/7/13/n66 = 75MHz
Bell is using its spectrum pretty efficiently.
Our Rogers phone also had 100MHz available for use but used it much less efficiently.
Rogers had the following:
Rogers 4G Channels
Channel 4/66, size 20Channel 7, size 20Channel 2, size 15Channel 12, size 10Channel 5, size 5
Total 70MHz of available 4G channels
Rogers 5G Channels
Channel n41, size 20Channel n71, size 10
Total 30MHz of available 5G channels
So you think here, oh, they’ve got 30MHz of 5G where Bell only has 10MHz! Rogers must be rocking. Yet they are not, because many of the channels can’t be used together.
I saw them combined at most in these ways:
2/4/7/12 = 65MHz2/66/n41 = 55MHz2/7/n71 = 45Mhz2/4/5 = 40Mhz
If you use 7, you can’t use n41.
You can only use one of 5, 12, and n71.
You can only use one of n41 and n71 (but that will be fixed next year).
Some of this is because of physical limitations on the way radios work. Some of it is the capabilities of today’s phones. Some of it is Rogers’ network. Some of it is industry standards definitions.
This all goes to say that Bell’s performance in Montreal is at least in part because Bell and Telus’s airwaves combine much better, while Rogers has a set of airwaves that won’t combine. But next year’s phones should be able to combine Rogers’ two 5G bands, and depending on Rogers’ influence with standards bodies and phone manufacturers, they may be able to standardize other combinations that would use their airwaves better.
If you consider your 4G performance just fine, 5G isn’t going to bring you radically new experiences right now. It’s icing on the cake. Lots of people like icing, though. Right now, any 5G phone will help relieve crowding if you’re in a congested area with 5G coverage. On Bell and Telus, it’ll also give you a noticeable speed boost. Next year’s phones should do something similar for Rogers.
We’re just at the beginning of the 5G road, and that goes for Canada even more than for the US. As the government offers up more airwaves and carriers build out networks, eventually Canadians should see a mobile experience as different from the current one as your current smartphone is from your old BlackBerry.
keyword: Upgrade Now or Wait? Canada’s 5G Secrets RevealedUpgrade Now or Wait? Canada’s 5G Secrets RevealedUpgrade Now or Wait? Canada’s 5G Secrets Revealed