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Strain on 5G networks leaving consumers less satisfied over time, researcher says

TORONTO — Canadian consumers are increasingly expecting more when it comes to the quality of 5G performance and are placing blame on providers when an internet connection is spotty, a researcher says.
A report analyzing satisfaction with 5G performance says Canadian consumers are increasingly expecting more when it comes to quality of service and placing the blame on providers when their internet connection is spotty. A person uses a cellphone in Ottawa on Monday, July 18, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

TORONTO — Canadian consumers are increasingly expecting more when it comes to the quality of 5G performance and are placing blame on providers when an internet connection is spotty, a researcher says.

It's leading to the emergence of a "satisfaction gap," where Canadians are 10 per cent less happy with the quality of their 5G service after using it for more than a year, said Jasmeet Sethi, head of Ericsson Research's ConsumerLab.

"As with all consumers, Canadian consumers also have extremely high expectations on what the technology should deliver," Sethi said in an interview on the sidelines of this week's Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto.

"We see a bit of a shift from just peak speeds now to more quality of experience."

He said expectations surrounding network performance have ramped up considerably over the past five years in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which thrust many employees into remote work situations and emphasized the importance of reliability in technology.

That's changed the way someone might react to a network not holding up as they try to video conference from a congested location like an airport or place a phone call from a subway station.

Sethi said major performance issues are also still prevalent at event venues such as concerts, where large crowds can overwhelm networks as tens of thousands attempt to send photos to their friends or upload videos to social media.

An Ericsson survey found more than 40 per cent of Canadian consumers attended stadium venues over the past year on an average of about eight times.

Two-in-five indicated they faced 5G connectivity issues and around one-third of those said their most recent experience was unsatisfactory compared with their cellphone service expectations.

Sethi said the research shows there is a correlation between network quality and customer loyalty. Users facing issues at event venues are three times more likely to switch carriers in search of better performance.

For Canadian providers, he said a big "stress test" of their networks looms this fall when Taylor Swift is set to take her Eras Tour to Toronto and Vancouver for nine performances.

Swift's tour has reportedly set single-day data traffic records at multiple stadiums around North America.

"You have to deliver at that point of time," Sethi said.

To adapt to growing expectations, he said Canadian telecom providers should focus on offering "elevated connectivity" to their customers, where users could pay a premium to ensure the connectivity of their device is prioritized when a network is strained.

Another strategy could involve network slicing, a technology that creates multiple virtual networks for wireless traffic, in addition to the shared physical network. Each slice reserves capacity for individual users or specific 5G applications.

Canada's Big 3 carriers, Rogers Communications Inc., Bell Canada and Telus Corp., have said they have plans to incorporate network slicing following trials of the technology.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter of Canadians changed wireless plans over the past year, with 79 per cent citing better pricing and nearly half opting for more data, according to an Abacus Data survey released Tuesday.

The poll of 5,000 Canadian adults last month was commissioned by the Canadian Telecommunications Association.

Speaking at the telecom conference on Monday, the association's president and CEO Robert Ghiz told attendees that Canada has "some of the highest performing, fastest networks" in the world. He noted recent tests have shown Canada ranks in the top five countries globally for network speed.

Still, he acknowledged gaps remain when it comes to network connectivity, particularly in rural Canada.

While the Canadian telecommunications sector spent $11.4 billion in capital expenditures — excluding spectrum costs — in 2023, Ghiz said more investment is needed "to connect that last mile."

"I know it's hard to imagine if you're from downtown Toronto, but if you look at our mining, our fishing or aquaculture, our forestry, our oil and gas industry — all those industries, most of them are in rural areas," Ghiz said.

"The economic engine of Canada is rural Canada ... Once they are connected like the rest of Canada, I think we're going to see tremendous growth opportunities in our economic growth and GDP."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press