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Even the coronavirus can't stop 5G's momentum

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Even the coronavirus can't stop 5G's momentum

The next-generation wireless faces a few speed bumps with the global pandemic, but we're still seeing phones launch and coverage expand.

 

5g-phone-hands-2.jpg

5G continues to expand this year, even as the novel coronavirus spreads across the globe.  

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

 

 

This was supposed to be the year 5G went mainstream. Huge swaths of the world would be blanketed with coverage. Every major handset maker -- including Apple -- would offer a wide variety of 5G phones. After years of hype and last year's early deployments, consumers would finally start to enjoy the benefits of the super-fast wireless technology in a real way. 

 

Then the novel coronavirus struck. 

 

The virus, which causes a pneumonia-like disease called COVID-19, quickly spread across the globe, causing cities and entire countries to issue lockdowns to slow its advance. China, where COVID-19 was first detected in late 2019, shut down first, jamming up production of iPhones and other products. The rest of the world soon followed suit, and the global economy all but ground to a halt.

 

"In our lifetimes we've never seen a faster economic collapse," Strategy Analytics analyst Ken Hyers said.

 

The result is a shattering of the buoyant optimism of just six months ago. Millions of people are out of work, and the world has recorded over 10 million COVID-19 infections. But even if the coronavirus has slowed down the rollout of 5G in heavily hit areas such as the US, it's not going to stop 5G's progress. 

 

The continued advance of 5G is more critical than ever now that the coronavirus has radically changed our world. People are stuck at home and are maintaining their distance from each other, forcing them to rely on home broadband service -- something 5G could amp up. The next-generation cellular technology, which boasts anywhere from 10 to 100 times the speed of 4G and rapid-fire responsiveness, could improve everything from simple video conferencing to telemedicine and advanced augmented and virtual reality.

 

"The potential resilience and broad connectivity that [5G] offers … [means] people are really going to say, 'Yeah, I probably need that,'" said David Harold, chief marketing officer at graphics chip tech designer Imagination Technologies. And they need 5G not just to download videos faster but to stay connected to their loved ones and colleagues. Applications enabled by 5G "suddenly feel like urgent tech," Harold said. 

 

The demands have gotten every network carrier and handset designer around the globe to focus on the technology, and despite everything, The rollout of 5G has advanced faster than that of 4G LTE in its early days. Even with the pandemic, most, if not all, of the pieces will be in place for 5G to go mainstream this year. Network coverage should be broad, and companies will offer 5G phones aplenty. The only true wild card is whether anyone will buy them -- and just how much they'll cost. 

Early days 

Even as headlines emerged from Wuhan, China, about the novel coronavirus, life went on as usual with CES in Las Vegas in January and Samsung's Galaxy S20 launch in early February. But the tone began to change after the cancellation of conferences such as Mobile World Congress later in February. The show was scrapped the day after Samsung's Unpacked event -- and just a week before journalists were supposed to descend into Barcelona, Spain.

 

MWC, the world's biggest mobile conference, was the place where 5G was supposed to really break out. This year's show was slated to feature new 5G phones from nearly every major Android vendor, as well as updates about the networks further embracing the technology.

 

The impact on 5G of losing MWC is incalculable. This is where network carriers and phone makers strike up deals. The world's first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 from a decade ago, came about partly because of a dinner held at MWC. The next marquee 5G device could have emerged from a chat over tapas. 

 

Five days after MWC's cancellation, Apple issued a rare warning, saying the coronavirus was taking a bigger toll on its operations than it thought. At the time, it was being hurt by a shutdown in China, one of its key markets and the location where most of its devices are made. "Worldwide iPhone supply will be temporarily constrained," Apple said at the time.

 

The coronavirus has impacted other companies, as well. Samsung in late April warned that the pandemic would "significantly" hurt its various businesses and cautioned that "5G network investments may face reductions or delays" in Korea and around the globe. COVID-19 ravaged the world at the same time Samsung introduced its most important device of the year, the Galaxy S20.

 

All of that culminated in the smartphone industry seeing its biggest ever drop in shipments in February, down 38% to 61.8 million units, according to Strategy Analytics. The firm attributed the "huge" drop to a collapse in demand in Asia.

Even though the lockdowns expanded across Europe and North America, nothing was quite as bad as the time China was offline. 

Yet its recovery has been just as rapid as its shutdown. 

China's recovery

Despite all the noise about 5G here, the epicenter of investment in the next-generation technology is actually in China. 

 

While China suffered from the coronavirus first, most areas of the country have now largely recovered. Citizens have been returning to work and heading to stores and restaurants. Increasingly, 5G is becoming one of the must-haves for Chinese shoppers, and researchers have found that even with uncertainty in the world, people in China are still buying smartphones and carriers are building out their networks.

 

"China is really in full deployment," said Joy Tan, Huawei's senior vice president of public affairs. "Most of the cities are back to normal." 

 

"China is really in full deployment."
Joy Tan, Huawei senior vice president of public affairs

Ericsson, the Swedish networking giant, expects 5G to be in about twice as many hands in 2020 as it had predicted late last year. The total number of subscribers should reach 190 million this year, with the bulk coming from China. Conversely, North America and Europe won't be quite as strong as the company previously projected. 

 

"It's driven very much by China," said Patrick Cerwall, head of strategic marketing insights at Ericsson. The country has worked hard on "having devices in shops and making sure that people are then upgrading with good packages."

 

Still, Ericsson expects the areas outside China to recover and be on pace with the company's earlier predictions by the end of 2025. While the percentage of China's population using 5G will be higher initially, North America will catch up in a year or two, Cerwall said. At that point, about 20% of people in North America will subscribe to 5G services. That jumps to 75% by the end of 2025.

 

This all assumes 5G will actually get rolled out. 

Building the 5G foundation

5G uptake relies on two things: network availability and handsets. When it comes to the network side, COVID-19 hasn't hurt the rollout. 

 

All of the carriers in the US continue to turn on 5G service in more markets, as do providers in China and other regions. It's Europe and Canada where things are more uncertain. 

 

Major Canadian and European carriers have launched 5G, but the pandemic has raised questions about how fast their networks can expand. 5G spectrum auctions have been delayed in Canada and parts of the European Union because of the pandemic, pushing out the launch of 5G in some areas by several months or longer. The spectrum auction for Ottawa, one of Canada's biggest cities, was slated for December but will now be held next summer, according to the CBC. 

 

Navdeep Bains, Canada's minister of innovation, science and industry, in early June said the delay will "allow the telecommunications industry to maintain its focus on providing essential services to Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic," the CBC said.

 

In the US, the carriers are moving closer to their promised broad coverage maps.

 

"Certainly by the end of the year, the top three [US] carriers will have nationwide networks for 5G," said Strategy Analytics analyst Susan Welsh de Grimaldo. She said that about 8.4% of all US wireless subscriptions this year will be 5G, as adoption slows from previous estimates. By the end of 2021, about 30% of US wireless subscriptions should be 5G. 

 

One carrier known for its in-your-face marketing is T-Mobile. The "Un-carrier" completed its acquisition of Sprint at the beginning of April, immediately giving the combined company a big 5G footprint. T-Mobile's nationwide network went live in December, which meant its network covered over 200 million people. And at the beginning of June, it became the first carrier to have 5G coverage in all 50 states.

 

As of mid-June, AT&T's 5G service now covers over 160 million people in 327 markets. It added 137 of those areas this month and said it's still on track to having nationwide 5G coverage this summer

 

AT&T also has deployed dynamic spectrum sharing in parts of its network, which will speed up its 5G rollout. The technology lets carriers use the same spectrum bands for both 4G and 5G, allowing them to turn on their 5G networks without having to first turn off 4G. Instead of having different roads for buses and cars, DSS is like having one big highway with separate lanes for buses and cars. 

 

And Verizon in May made it possible for customers in 35 cities to upload content like photos and videos over its faster 5G network. It also created a virtual lab so it can continue working on 5G applications during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is limiting time in Verizon's actual 5G labs. And in early June, Verizon started offering the world's only Samsung Galaxy S20 that supports the fastest type of 5G speed, millimeter-wave.

 

Verizon similarly plans to utilize DSS as it builds out a low-band nationwide 5G network this year. It has been including support for the forthcoming, wider coverage network in all of its 2020 5G devices. 

 

It and other carriers have actually been able to speed their rollouts in some instances because there aren't as many people out and about. Much of the work is done outside and involves small crews, creating less risk for illness. 

 

"We have been able to continue to build during this time of COVID and even accelerate that build in certain markets," said Heidi Hemmer, Verizon's vice president of network engineering. As cities and small towns have instituted shelter-in-place orders and road closures, Verizon has been able to quickly lay the fiber required to switch on its fast network.

 

CNET

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