Canadian cellular networks are going all in with 5G. But each provider’s capability is different. Before you switch to a 5G phone in Canada, here’s what you need to know.
Canada has had 5G for some time now. All the major Canadian networks are spending lots of money on advertising in hopes that you’ll join them. And they have a practical reason for doing so that isn’t directly related to money. The more people who join their network, the more efficient their 5G service becomes. This is because more users mean that more data is packed into their 5G channels which increases overall performance.
It’s great that Canadian 5G is getting better. But as of now, is 5G in Canada really that much better than the 4G everyone’s used to? Is it already better to the point where it’s worth buying a 5G-compatible phone?
Canadian 5G: The Basics
In Nov 2020, PCMag tested the 4G and 5G speeds of 24 major metropolitan areas in Canada. They found that, compared to many other countries around the world, Canada’s unlimited 5G plans are performing really well. This is certainly great news. But there’s more to consider before taking the plunge into 5G as a consumer.
When comparing the United States’ 5G to Canada’s, for instance, you’ll see a lot of differences. Canada didn’t get into the game of auctioning off mmWave like the US did. This means that 5G services like ultra-wideband (Verizon) aren’t available in Canada. Instead, Canadian networks are installing 5G on channels that could have been used for 4G. For perspective, T-Mobile in America and Rogers in Canada are comparable with their mid-band 5G services with one exception. T-Mobile’s channels are wider.
Bell and Telus, on the other hand, are both using a particular 5G channel that resembles one of the mainstream Canadian 4G bands.
More On The Canadian Big 3
In some Canadian cities (including Montreal), there isn’t really a difference between Bell and Telus because they share a radio network. Their phone firmware and core internet networks are different, but coverage in many areas is basically the same for users of both carriers. However, despite sharing a radio network, the 5G experience with Bell/Telus is noticeably better than the 4G LTE that Canadians are familiar with. Those with 5G-compatible are definitely at an advantage; one that’s almost certainly worth investing in a new phone.
Rogers, on the other hand, doesn’t yet have the 5G capabilities in Montreal that Bell/Telus have. Well, it’s more that Rogers’ 5G network doesn’t work very well with any of the 5G-compatible phones currently available. If you have Rogers and you live in Montreal, it’s probably not worth getting a 5G phone. Not yet, at least. The only conceivable reason it would be worth it is if the 4G airwaves in your local area are really slow and crowded.
Note: Videotron doesn’t offer 5G yet, so they won’t feature much in this article.
Rogers, Telus, and Bell have all added their 5G networks onto their 4G ones. All Canadians, at least as of this writing, are still experiencing 4G most of the time; even those who have 5G phones. If you happen to live in a 5G coverage area and you have a compatible phone, your phone may automatically jump to a 5G channel at any given moment. But even then, it isn’t guaranteed. (We’ll get into this concept in more detail below.)
Every Canadian carrier is working hard to enhance and extend their 5G coverage beyond where it’s currently available. The way things are going, it’s likely that a big 5G leap forward in Canada won’t happen until 2021 or even 2022. Why? Because part-way through 2021, the Canadian government will make available large amounts of clear airwaves via auction. These 5G airwaves will be around 3.5GHz. Right now, Canadian cellular networks have to work with what’s available to them. But they have much to look forward to very soon.
How Fast Is Canadian 5G?
Bell & Telus
Generally, both Bell and Telus have good 4G and 5G speeds. In areas where these two networks have strong signals, 5G is markedly faster than 4G. For example, in areas of solid coverage, many Bell users are reaching 5G download speeds of almost 900Mbps and 4G download speeds of almost 600Mbps.
Note: upload speeds for Bell/Telus are roughly the same for 4G and 5G. That will certainly change given time. But the super-low latency that 5G will eventually provide isn’t quite a reality in Canada yet.
With Rogers, download speeds are roughly the same for 4G and 5G. In solid coverage areas, 5G and 4G users get download speeds of around 200Mbps. 5G upload speeds with Rogers, however, are much faster than 4G. As previously mentioned, 2021 will certainly be a good year for Rogers. Phones released then will handle Roger’s 5G frequency setup much better. Coverage area and speed will go way up.
The 5G path that Rogers is taking - though different than Bell and Telus - may turn out incredibly well for them. Time will tell. Instead of focusing on super-fast peak speeds, their priority is maintaining speed consistency. (It’s also worth mentioning that because of a co-working agreement with Videotron, Rogers’ service is constrained to a degree in Quebec.)
Note: a person’s 5G speed is hard to guarantee moment to moment, even in a strong-coverage area. There many things (location, buildings, available bandwidth, number of users in an area, etc) that affect it.
Canadian 5G In More Detail
Another unique thing about 5G in Canada is that, on average, less spectrum is required per carrier to deliver better speeds. This is great because networks can handle more users since there’s more room. It also results in more consistent service. Unlimited plans will likely be offered at lower prices because of this, as well. Most major Canadian carriers are already increasing the gigabytes per person for all their popular plans.
As we mentioned previously, 5G tests in Canada thus far have gone very well. Speeds of most Canadian carriers are largely consistent even as subscribers use way more data with their unlimited 5G plans than they did with 4G. Because the slow-and-steady climb of 5G in Canada has led to impressively efficient service, Canadian networks should be able to handle increased traffic over time with ease.
It’s for these reasons that Canadian networks are pushing hard for people to buy 5G phones. Because the 5G channels are much more efficient than the 4G ones, they much prefer subscribers to use their gigs and gigs of data on the most efficient channels (5G). This gives users a better experience overall. But this also means that sooner than later, as Canadian 5G service increases in efficiency, 4G service will decrease.
As of today, Canadians with 5G-compatible phones are still using mostly 4G airwaves. This means that most 5G in Canada still feels like the 4G you’re used to. But the good news is that in some areas of Canada, 5G is showing an almost 30% increase in overall efficiency compared to 4G. And in almost every case, it’s Bell and Telus users (with 5G phones) that are experiencing these increased speeds. In fact, even if you don’t live in a big Canadian city, it’s probably still worth getting a 5G phone. Even if your area regularly experiences latency due to congestion. Eventually, it’s going to get a lot faster. And signs point to that happening sooner than later.
If you have Rogers, maybe wait until at least March 2021 to get a 5G-compatible phone.
Why Should Rogers Customers Wait?
Why is Rogers’ 5G not performing as well as Bell and Telus? Your phone's connection generally combines three or four channels of airwaves at one time. This is because the more channels your phone combines together, the faster your speeds are. Most tests in urban Canadian areas show that Bell, Telus, and Rogers all use 100MHz of airwaves. Unfortunately, Rogers has a harder time aggregating channels. In simpler terms, Bell and Telus are able to take bigger slices of the airwave pizza while Rogers can reach only for small slices. This results in slower speeds for them.
In the PCMag tests mentioned at the beginning of this article, they listed all the channels that Bell (and Telus, as the two share networks in many areas) are using. Some of this information may be interesting only to the Canadian techies out there.
Bell/Telus 4G Channels
- Two channels of 7, each sized 20MHz (total 40MHz)
- Channel 2, size 20MHz
- Channel 4/66, size 15MHz
- Channel 29, size 10MHz
- Channel 13, size 5MHz
Total 90MHz of available 4G channels
Bell/Telus 5G Channel
- Channel n66, size 10MHz
The takeaway here is that Bell is very effective at using its spectrum.
Rogers 4G Channels
- Channel 4/66, size 20
- Channel 7, size 20
- Channel 2, size 15
- Channel 12, size 10
- Channel 5, size 5
Total 70MHz of available 4G channels
Rogers 5G Channels
- Channel n41, size 20
- Channel n71, size 10
Total 30MHz of available 5G channels
What Does It All Mean
Compared to Bell and Telus, Rogers (at least as of now) doesn’t use their channels as effectively. As mentioned previously, the reason is that they’re currently unable to use many of the channels together. Not all, but many. In Rogers’ defense, (1) radio waves do have certain physical limitations that present hurdles for them, (2) not all smartphones have the same capabilities, and (3) industry standards aren’t the same in every country. All that being said, Rogers’ network does have things to work on in order to become a formidable 5G player.
Some good news for Rogers is that at some point next year, their ability to combine two 5G bands should come to fruition. One reason for this is that the 5G smartphones compatible with Rogers released in 2021 will be able to combine two 5G bands. Another reason is that Rogers will be in a better position to standardize channel combinations.
5G Canada: What Canadians Need To Know Before Getting A 5G Phone - Conclusion
The moral of the Canadian 5G story is essentially this: unless you live in very particular areas and are with certain carriers, it’s probably not time to rush and get the newest 5G-compatible phone quite yet. That being said, in some circumstances 5G is definitely faster than 4G to the point where for some Canadians, it may be worth it. Particularly if you live in a crowded area with 5G service (and you use Bell or Telus), you may want to consider it because you’ll avoid a lot of the congestion. You’ll almost certainly have a significant speed boost. Next year, that statement will apply to Rogers, as well.
It’s just the beginning for 5G in Canada. Canadian carriers are still building new networks and installing new equipment. Soon the government will make available more airwaves at which point 5G in Canada will take leaps and bounds. Very soon, 5G-compatible smartphones will be flying off the shelves.
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