Fifth-generation wireless technology, better known as 5G, has been thrust into the international spotlight recently, serving as a lightning rod issue amid the U.S.-China dispute over Huawei Technologies Co. The soon-to-come high-speed network will power smart devices of the future, but lately there’s more talk about the security implications surrounding its buildout than the technology itself. 

“The 5G case has become a political touchstone in Canada,” said Wesley Wark, a security specialist and professor at the University of Ottawa, in a telephone interview, referencing Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request in early December. “It’s an issue that may well surface in our upcoming federal election.”

Discussions around the development of 5G networks have focused on security concerns and heightened U.S.-China relations, but what is 5G exactly and how will it affect everyday Canadians? 

Here are five questions (and five answers) for what you need to know about 5G technology.

What is 5G, and how will it affect the way Canadians use technology?

5G is the fifth-generation of mobile broadband technology. It builds on the 4G LTE networks that most Canadians use right now and will provide faster connections, said Raviraj Adve, professor with the University of Toronto‘s department of electrical and computer engineering.

“5G should be able to bring a lot of devices into the internet age,” said Adve in a telephone interview. “It also opens up new applications like remote surgeries and advanced robotics, and allows people to do things virtually that right now we have to do face-to-face.”

The wireless system will boost data transfer speeds – which will help in improving new technologies like virtual reality – and will eventually be needed to facilitate fleets of autonomous vehicles, which may depend on accessing real-time traffic information at lightning-fast speeds, said Adve.

While 5G is crucial for developing future technologies, the reality is 4G is perfectly capable of facilitating daily tasks like web browsing and video streaming, said Adve, who suggests the average consumer may not notice a difference.

Huawei fires back at U.S. charges

Huawei Technologies Co. is digging in its heels after the U.S. Justice Department formally charged it with stealing trade secrets and fraud. Meanwhile, Canada is caught in the middle for its role in detaining Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who now faces potential extradition. Bloomberg's Stefan Nicola discusses how this impacts the telecom industry.

When will 5G be up and running in Canada?

The first implementation of 5G is expected to arrive in Japan next year for the Olympics, according to Adve, who adds that Canada and the rest of the world will follow soon after. 

“In the past Canada and the U.S. have been two to three years behind East Asia,” Adve said.

Who are the major players?

Telecommunications companies all around the world, including Canada’s BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp., will rely on technology made by multinational networking and telecommunication equipment giants like Finland’s Nokia Corp., Swedish-based Ericsson and China’s Huawei in order to build 5G networks. 

Many countries are continuing to research the implications of the technology before choosing who to partner with, while Australia and New Zealand have already banned Huawei equipment from their 5G infrastructure.

Meanwhile, U.S. authorities have been warning other countries not to trust Huawei on 5G. On Monday, U.S. prosecutors filed criminal charges accusing China’s largest technology company of stealing trade secrets from an American rival and committing bank fraud by violating sanctions against doing business with Iran.

Why can't we build it ourselves?

Building the infrastructure for 5G has a huge barrier to entry, and Canadian corporations currently don’t have the resources to build a project of this scale, according to Adve.

“It’s a very long and expensive process. A lot of the technologies are patented and you’d have to license it from Huawei or Ericsson or Nokia. I don’t think it’s feasible for a government entity to do it.”

Why is everyone so concerned about security when it comes to 5G?

Wark said 5G is going to be a significant part of critical infrastructure. “For that reason there are all kinds of openings in it that could bear security consequences,” Wark said.

While the technology offers a lot to consumers, from a security standpoint it’s much more difficult to monitor and inspect than its broadband predecessors.

“With 5G, what you have is no longer a core set of components that can be scrutinized,” said Wark. “From a security standpoint, it is a kind of nightmare in the sense of being able to put it under the security microscope, and ensure there are no illicit intrusions and no hidden backdoors.”

The concern isn’t anything unique to Huawei’s technology, said Wark. But security experts fear the company – even-though it is not state-owned – could be vulnerable to Chinese government influence for cyber espionage and intellectual property theft.