Will 5G live up to expectations?


After years of promising a breakthrough in wireless technology, and corresponding returns for its investors, the COVID-19 pandemic gave operators even more time to perfect their networks.

About two years after US carriers started rolling out commercial 5G, networks are still a long way from what wireless companies promised. The best 5G experiences are primarily in large audience locations, such as stadiums and concert halls, which are practically off limits during the COVID-19 crisis. The most basic “national” 5G has wider availability but limited speed and lag time advantages over 4G connections. “There is no question they overstated it,” TECHnalysis Research president Bob O’Donnell said of wireless carriers, though he noted that they couldn’t do much about the slow rollout of 5G. Unlike 4G networks, 5G relies on many “flavors” of spectrum, he explained. And, unlike other countries, the US didn’t make large chunks of the most practical spectrum frequencies available for purchase until now. Read: Why Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile Just Spent $ 80 Billion on an Auction and What It Will Mean for 5G The Result Isn’t What Was Touted But Consumers May Not Even Realize Yet Because They Don’t Depend of cellular connections as they would in normal times. And that could hamper operators’ ability to make money from 5G, requiring pushing consumers to more expensive plans with unlimited data. “We all use WiFi at home more than anything” during the pandemic, O’Donnell said. However, by the time people can spend more time away from home later this year, 5G networks could show some improvement as operators upgrade their network infrastructure. Even bigger changes could come next year thanks to the conclusion of an auction for essential wireless spectrum for mid-band frequencies that raised $ 81 billion. “Midband is the critical factor that has been absent from US 5G networks,” O’Donnell said, as it will allow operators to build networks that offer better service in more areas beyond dense environments. and limited where operators have deployed their best 5G experiences. Improvements in US 5G networks are important because device manufacturers are stepping up their efforts to bring 5G phones to consumers. Verizon Communications Inc. VZ, -1.09% saw more than 20 5G device launches in 2020, including Apple Inc.’s AAPL, -3.48%, which made 5G available on its four new iPhones. The operator expects even more 5G introductions this year, probably at more reasonable prices: Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. 005930, -3.17% cut the price of its new Galaxy S21 phone by $ 200 relative to the previous generation model this year, helping to make 5G more accessible. See also: Apple makes 5G iPhone look like a good value, which could be a huge signal boost Given the high costs of acquiring 5G spectrum and building network infrastructure, carriers will need to generate higher wireless revenue to pay for it. That will require a big shift toward more expensive plans for consumers. Companies argue that they are moving forward with that change. AT&T Inc. T, -2.55% noted the move toward unlimited plans as a driver of service revenue growth during the fourth quarter. And Verizon saw 55% of new customers in the fourth quarter opt for premium unlimited plans, a sign that the company is “already seeing monetization” in its 5G investments, according to CEO Hans Vestburg on the earnings call from January from Verizon. Beyond 5G capabilities, Verizon’s premium plans include perks like a free year of DIS from Walt Disney Co., -3.31% from Disney + streaming service, so people’s reasons for upgrading are mixed. It’s difficult to justify the costs of upgrades to premium plans based solely on the benefits of 5G, O’Donnell said. T-Mobile US Inc. TMUS, + 1.26% was better positioned for the 5G launch heading into the auction, as the company already had some mid-band spectrum thanks to its recent deal with Sprint. CEO Mike Sievert said on T-Mobile’s earnings call that the company is “getting ahead of the rest on the web,” positioning T-Mobile to “go deeper into core customers” and drive more premium upgrades. The proliferation of 5G in cheaper devices is favored by developments on the technology side. Qualcomm Inc. QCOM, -3.95% has brought 5G capabilities to its Snapdragon 400 series chips, a move that “takes 5G directly from the premium tier and is now knocking on the door of the lower tier,” said Durga Malladi, senior vice president of Qualcomm. President of 4G and 5G. “For the holidays this year, it will be difficult to find a new phone other than 5G,” O’Donnell said. Don’t Miss: The iPhone 5G is reigniting the subsidy wars, which is good for Apple and consumers, but not for mobile carriers. An anticipated development for Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile in 2021 is the growth of standalone 5G. This mode involves infrastructure upgrades as wireless companies begin to use blocks of spectrum solely for 5G rather than sharing spectrum between 4G and 5G. The transition to standalone mode “sets the stage for new services that 5G was designed for,” Malladi said, as it will bring benefits in latency or lag. At the consumer end, lower latency could help power applications like cloud gaming, according to O’Donnell. O’Donnell compares the radio spectrum to the lanes of traffic. To build a 5G “superhighway,” operators can combine various frequency chunks for faster speeds, he said, something that has long been possible with 4G but is only now becoming possible with 5G. While low-band sub-6 spectrum may not be particularly powerful on its own, when combined with mid-band spectrum, it can allow for wider “highways” and better overall coverage. Until now, operators have relied primarily on the millimeter wave spectrum and the sub-6 low-band spectrum to build their networks, and both have their limitations. Millimeter wave 5G offers faster speeds, but is better suited for smaller, denser locations like stadiums because it doesn’t travel much beyond a cell tower. Low-band sub-6 5G has allowed operators to continue to build their networks “nationwide,” but it does not offer the same speed advantages. “It has always been the case with 5G that to really work, operators need access to the right amount and the right kind of spectrum,” said Peter Jarich, director of GSMA Intelligence, a part of the wireless trade group GSM Association. “The United States has been criticized for not doing so well in some of those spaces.” Since last year: The long-promised ‘Year of 5G’ comes with more promise and little 5G Although many of the early use cases of 5G have been more specific, such as a better video experience in stadiums, said the vice president of Verizon product innovation, Sanyogita Shamsunder. MarketWatch that consumers will also come to see more overall benefits. “The overall customer experience will be different for those who use a lot of bandwidth,” he said, arguing that video calls over cellular connections will become more common. People will also “begin to see a differentiated experience” in congested areas, especially when moving from one location to another, according to Shamsunder. Operators also have opportunities to monetize 5G on the enterprise side by selling deals on the benefits of low latency. Companies are rolling out private 5G networks on their campuses to better control robots and machines, and the goal of AT&T, Verizon and others is to find new markets for 5G in areas such as manufacturing, transportation and retail, said Marisa Vivero, IBM Corp IBM, -0.60% vice president of strategy and offerings within the telecommunications space. Commercial apps will be useful to operators, according to Edward Jones analyst David Heger, as consumer upgrades to unlimited premium plans will likely not be enough to fully pay for all of the operators’ spectrum investments.