Everything with COVID-19 turned out to be more complicated than it initially seemed. Originally downplayed only as a flu variant with a short pregnancy window and a narrow ability to cause death, the coronavirus lurked in ignorant carriers for weeks, attacking victims of all ages, and closing almost entire nations. Three of these countries – the United States, South Korea, and China – were among the first countries in the world to introduce 5G wireless technology, and their companies are critical to enabling devices and networks to be rolled out in other parts of the world. What does that mean for 5G?
As with COVID-19 itself, the impact of the pandemic on 5G is not easy to summarize. Driven by major brands, smartphone and component factories generally resumed production quickly enough to ensure the supply of 5G devices. However, some testing and R&D initiatives have been postponed for months. When the network was launched, some network operators and countries suggested that nothing changed, while others delayed the introduction of individual or national networks at least slightly.
As the U.S. workforce becomes increasingly mobile and work from home is a viable option for more users, 5G will be an important prerequisite for both high-speed portable communication and wireless broadband at home. Businesses and consumers can generally expect 5G device and network rollouts in the next six months.
Devices: Expect modest delays
The two main categories of 5G devices that are already on the market are smartphones (“mobile 5G”) and home broadband modems (“fixed 5G”). Most of the evidence currently available points to the uninterrupted release of both types of devices this year, although some key products in each category are likely to arrive somewhat later than expected.
On the front of the smartphone, the components for 5G Android phones have been tested and produced long enough so that the corona virus apparently had only a relatively minor impact on their supply. Samsung launched the Galaxy S20 series in the early stages of the pandemic. Although sales have been reported to decline sharply for various reasons, there have been no complaints about scarcity. Many other Android vendors have continued to launch and deliver 5G phones – more in the first quarter of 2020 than in 2019 as a whole – although some were targeting China, where the rollout of 5G networks was robust and demand remains high.
The only major straggler is Apple, which is expected to launch its first 5G iPhones in September. Supply chain reports suggest the iOS operating system is two weeks behind schedule due to corporate adjustments from home and the devices are expected to arrive in October, possibly in the first week of November. This is a bit late, but not without precedent, since Apple’s flagship iPhone X did not hit the stores until November 3, 2017, more than a month after the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus on September 22 – still in time for Christmas gifts, although deliveries were initially limited.
On the fixed 5G front, fixed 5G broadband modem vendors are currently awaiting delivery of Qualcomm’s next generation QTM527 millimeter wave antenna system, which promises to extend the transmission range of the fastest 5G devices to a mile (with no physical obstacles). Carriers can deliver speeds of up to 7 Gbps with these modems, seven times faster than most luxury broadband customers in use today and 60 times faster than the current US average. Modems with QTM527 are still planned for the release windows “2020” and “Second Half 2020”, which Qualcomm and Carrier have already announced. However, Verizon announced that they will arrive this fall this week.
Although several countries are currently allowing retail stores to reopen, consumer demand for new devices after the pandemic (or, if you’re skeptical, about the middle of the pandemic) is a problem for some businesses and network operators. As of today, there are legitimate questions as to whether people will get involved in the traditional summer and early school seasons because the employment is massively disrupted and the school is physically returning. However, there is little doubt that companies will do everything to make compelling new products available for the all-important Christmas season.
Networks: carriers try to move forward with or without governments
Without getting stuck in the weeds of individual cell phone carrier decisions, one can rightly say that the coronavirus pandemic had different effects from company to company and from country to country. On a positive note, bans on indoor gatherings or actual COVID-19 infections have not devastated transport companies as financially as many other companies. Some airlines have even reported that their 5G outdoor tower installations are progressing rapidly during the pandemic because tower climbers have been able to work without interruption to place the large and small cell devices required for 5G networks.
Disruptions in the start-up and expansion of the network appear to be modest in the United States. T-Mobile has suggested that 5G adoption is in full swing and that the local government allowing delays – a problem long before the pandemic – is the main hurdle it is currently addressing. AT&T has identified similar licensing issues and challenges in hiring enough 5G tower climbers, but continues to promise to offer 5G “nationwide” this summer. Verizon confirmed that it is on the right track to offer 5G mobile service in parts of 60 cities by the end of the year, but is waiting for the Qualcomm parts mentioned above to expand its fixed 5G offering at these locations. However, U.S. airline executives have indicated that sales have been at least somewhat impacted by the closure of their retail locations and massive layoffs that affected millions of their customers.
Outside of the United States, the carrier stories are becoming more interesting. At the macro level, the largest annual event in the mobile communications industry – MWC Barcelona – was abruptly canceled due to earlier concerns about the corona virus. After that, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed to 2021, a double strike for many years of major international 5G marketing efforts. Canadian airline Bell said last week that its 5G network was ready to go, but was delaying its debut because it could not effectively market new offerings during the pandemic. In the UK and Australia, carriers have also been threatened by conspiracy theorists targeting network hardware installers and cell towers.
In China, government coordination prevented the pandemic from stopping the deployment of 5G networks that were in place long before the virus broke out in Wuhan. The country’s three largest carriers already have over 50 million 5G subscribers, and Nikkei expects China to have 70% of the world’s 5G customer base by the end of the year. The smaller, but still significant, South Korea had 5.77 million subscribers in April, almost 10% of its own population, and its top carriers continue to invest billions of dollars in network expansion.
The governments of both Asian countries have been aggressively pushing for the delivery of 5G networks, so everyone has had a host of 5G world novelties in the past two years, while airlines in regional neighbors Japan and Thailand have recently switched on their 5G towers. Deployment of European 5G networks has been largely spotty due to government delays, and COVID-19 outbreaks have only made them worse. Austria, France, Poland, Portugal and Spain all delayed 5G frequency auctions due to the pandemic, while the German United Internet blamed the closure of government approval offices for delaying the 5G network launch.
This does not mean that 5G networks will be or will not be available in some of these countries this year, but that the steady march towards much faster mobile access will be somewhat slower and more uneven in some places than originally expected. While it would be easy to blame the pandemic for these problems, the frequency allocation and allowable pandemic delays are years ahead. If your neighborhood or country doesn’t have at least 5G services by the end of the year, it’s most likely because of slow government officials and not because of the corona virus.
There has not been much good news since the release of COVID-19, and there are still good reasons to doubt that 5G will keep its last promise this year. But those of us who have been waiting for 5G networks to improve – let’s say nothing of a worthwhile 5G device to use – will almost certainly have several reasons to be happy before the end of 2020, provided we do are lucky enough to do so in areas where 5G rollouts continue without major interruptions.