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Using campus 5G networks, researchers aim for the next big innovation

High-end applications represent the bleeding edge, but there are also opportunities for 5G technology to boost equity and close the digital divide.

BY NAVNEET ALANG | JUN 03 2022

Stranded in a remote community, a patient lies on an operating table, undergoing life-saving surgery. A doctor carefully sutures a wound shut – but through a sophisticated medical robot which she controls from hundreds of kilometres away.

This is one of the many ways 5G could transform our lives. A collection of standards and technologies, 5G is an umbrella term given to the next generation of wireless internet that will connect smartphones, laptops, cars, sensors and a host of smart devices.

The idea of a surgeon healing a patient via a remotely controlled robot sounds incredible if you recall the innumerable Zoom meetings you may have had over the past few years. Plagued as that technology is by lag and unreliability, it is fair to ask: How might we ever do things like remote surgery if we can barely make a video conference call work?

That’s part of the challenge. While 5G networks are up and running in Canada’s major urban areas, the applications and devices to take advantage of them are still very much in their nascent stages. It’s also an area of research for a significant number of Canadian academics. From how to make connections more reliable to how to bridge the digital divide, what they hope is that 5G will usher in a brighter future – if it’s done right.

Among those focusing on the technologies is Ekram Hossain, a professor in the University of Manitoba’s department of electrical and computer engineering. He has worked extensively on 5G since the early 2010s, focused on using modern cell networks to enable machines – that is, sensors, industrial equipment, vehicles – to communicate with one another wirelessly. “There are three types of service with 5G,” Dr. Hossain said. “Machine-to-machine communication, mobile broadband, and ultra-reliable low latency.”

5G mobile broadband is predominantly a faster version of what exists today, so that everyday things many of us do, like watching YouTube on a phone or downloading an album on Spotify for a transit ride, will happen more quickly. The hope is also that 5G will enable a stable and expansive enough internet connection to allow for new types of applications. One example might be augmented reality, in which one wears a headset with transparent lenses that map digital information over the real world, perhaps to give you directions as you walk through your city.

Machine-to-machine connections, however, might be most helpfully put to use in industrial situations. Take a modern factory with large machinery spread across a variety of areas. Sensors built into those machines communicate with each other and relay information to a hub that allows oversight remotely or from a central command centre in the facility.

It’s that topic which Dr. Hossain has focused on, and it is a 5G application that is also being piloted at various universities around the country. McMaster University, for example, announced in late 2021 that it was testing a faster, more capable version of 5G on its campus, called millimetre wave, to enable connections between machines.

Mental health applications

At Western University, a 5G network has been deployed on campus to begin testing related technologies. The university, in conjunction with Bell Canada, is also investing $1 million in a small number of 5G research projects.

One of the researchers at Western who’s working in the area is Kevin Shoemaker, a professor at the school of kinesiology. His focus is on student mental health, specifically how someone might use a phone app to calm or re-centre themselves during a period of anxiety. “If you were able to detect your heart rate, then it would be presented as colours, or as an animal flying, or any kind of representation that you find pleasing and calming,” he said. “You can use that relationship between your heart rate in the picture you see, to start training yourself to relax.”

That kind of application is quite possible today.  But super-fast networks may make the experience more immersive and effective. Instead of just plain colours or an animal avatar, Dr. Shoemaker hopes that 5G will allow for virtual or augmented reality apps, which could have more immediate effects on mental health.

“With 5G, you can actually create a much more lifelike experience,” said Dr. Shoemaker. “And you can connect thousands of people together who want to do the same thing at the same time and see what kind of events you can create as a student body.” Such communal applications may help foster a sense of community.

Fostering equity

Research groups across the country are working on applications for 5G networks, and partnerships like the one at Western are becoming more common. Carleton University was working with Huawei on 5G – but that partnership is uncertain now that government has announced a ban on the Chinese company. The University of Waterloo has partnered with Rogers and has built a 5G network on campus. And a similar initiative is underway at Université Laval.

Yet, while high-end applications represent the bleeding edge, there is also a dimension of 5G that may have benefits for equity and accessibility.

Catherine Rosenberg is the Canada Research Chair in Future Internet in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Waterloo. Her work on 5G is extensive but has recently focused on something called “massive MIMO,” which stands for multiple input multiple output. It’s a way of increasing the amount of data that can be transmitted through cell towers as well as the speed at which that process happens.

While 5G has many far-reaching possibilities, Dr. Rosenberg’s work has led her to believe that one of the promises of next-generation networks is to make the internet more widely accessible. Canada’s city centres are well-connected, but there is a significant difference in both coverage and performance in the vast but sparsely populated areas that make up most of the country. 5G and technologies like MIMO may help because instead of building cell towers, natural surfaces and objects can be used to relay the signal farther than would otherwise be possible.

“If you are in Toronto, then with 5G you will have better coverage at a better rate,” said Dr. Rosenberg. “But if you are in a rural area, then 5G might replace cable or DSL. Suddenly it can change your life, because instead of bad connectivity at home you can get a fast wireless connection.”

In addition to that focus on the digital divide, Dr. Rosenberg is also working on forward-looking tech called slicing, which is only possible with 5G, and allows more than one network to run on the same physical infrastructure – think multiple phone carriers operating off the same towers and antennas.

Like much about 5G, however, the process of transforming research into real-world applications is slow. For the time being, we’re left waiting for the work of these academics to bear fruit, hoping that the reality will live up to expectations.

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