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Not even the coronavirus can derail 5G's global momentum

The pandemic has caused hiccups in some regions, but the super-fast wireless tech keeps rolling out.

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

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

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.

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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." 

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 Canada 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. 

"It's a lot easier to trench a road and lay fiber when you don't have a lot of traffic on it," she said. "Similarly, because many of the cities don't have a lot of folks out on the sidewalk, we were able to get out and do work actually hanging antennas and making the connections."

2020 will even see the launch of another wireless carrier: Dish. The satellite TV provider is in the process of buying Sprint's prepaid mobile brand Boost and Sprint's 800MHz wireless spectrum to help Dish build a 5G network that is supposed to rival AT&T, Verizon and the new T-Mobile. The deal also gives Dish access to T-Mobile's network for seven years while Dish builds its own 5G offering. The $5 billion acquisition is expected to close at the beginning of July

On schedule?

Like the networks, devices also are largely on time. While some 5G phones have seen slight delays, they haven't been major, at least in the US. Apple said that after earlier shutdowns in China, production is back on track for its devices. The upcoming iPhone is widely expected to come with 5G. Qualcomm, the world's biggest provider of wireless chips, said 5G is "progressing as planned." The company hasn't changed its forecast for how many 5G phones will ship this year: 175 million to 225 million.

"When [the pandemic] started, I was a little concerned," said Christian Block, the senior vice president overseeing Qualcomm's RF business. "But people are extremely efficient, more than I thought."

Block's team designs modules that connect phones to wireless networks. It's essential that the modules are ready at the same time as the modems designed by Qualcomm, or else the phones won't be able to access the 5G networks. Qualcomm's chip development and production is on schedule, Block said.

"The biggest risk is potential delays because of transportation," he said. "Instead of moving goods within two days, now it's four or five days. [But] if there's a delay, it's [going to be] hours or a few days, not weeks."

Apple serves as the biggest wild card. It normally unveils its latest phones in September, but some reports have said the devices could be delayed. It's likely, though, that the new iPhones will arrive before the end of 2020. And once Apple's 5G iPhones go on sale, it will immediately become the 5G leader in the US. 

"Certainly, there's a lot of buzz about what's going to happen with Apple," Andre Fuetsch, chief technology officer and president of AT&T Labs, said during a Wells Fargo telecom conference in mid-June. He didn't detail Apple's launch plans but noted the next iPhone is "going to be a pretty big and important part in the 5G device portfolio when that becomes available."

This year, smartphone makers should ship about 33 million 5G phones in the US, Strategy Analytics said (that's up slightly from the firm's estimate in April but lower than it projected before the pandemic). About half of the total 5G devices sold in the US in 2020 will be iPhones, it said.

"Three out of 10 smartphones sold in the US [in 2020] will be 5G," Strategy Analytics' Hyers said. "I'd say that's pretty mainstream. But it's all backloaded in the second half of the year."

But even without Apple, there won't be a shortage of new 5G devices this year. The US carriers have all said they'll offer around 15 devices apiece, and many of those have already hit the market. That even includes products like Lenovo's 5G laptop, the $1,400 Flex 5G that's carried by Verizon. And it also includes Samsung's new, cheaper 5G Galaxy A phones.

Why this matters

A big question is whether anyone will buy those devices. The first 5G phones on the market last year were pricey. The Galaxy S10 5G cost $1,299, a $399 premium over while the regular S10. Newer 5G premium phones are slightly less expensive (the Galaxy S20 from earlier this year starts at $999), but they're still not accessible to everyone. New 5G chips from companies like Qualcomm and MediaTek should change that. 

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 7-series chips will allow for 5G phones in the US that cost around $450 to $550, while its Snapdragon 690, unveiled earlier this month, will power 5G devices that could retail for as low as $250. And MediaTek, a major chip supplier to Chinese handset makers, too has a full lineup of 5G processors, from premium to less expensive devices. It expects to see 5G phones in China this year that cost less than $300. 

"What we're seeing from the [handset makers] that serve the China market is devices cascading through the price tiers as we go through the year, quite quickly," said Finbarr Moynihan, MediaTek's general manager of sales. "There [are] a lot of devices launching [across] all major brands."

In the US, Samsung has led the pack with both pricey 5G handsets and less expensive devices. Its new Galaxy A lineup includes the $500 Galaxy A51 5G and the $600 Galaxy A71 5G

"The midtier consumer doesn't have to choose between great technology and great value," Caleb Slavin, senior manager of smartphone product strategy at Samsung Electronics America, said in April. 

But even those devices are pricey for the tens of millions of people who are out of work. The pandemic could nudge handset makers to tweak their designs, analysts say, favoring less expensive models earlier than they planned. And carriers will likely offer discounts to move more customers to 5G

Samsung is expected to introduce its newest flagship mobile devices in August, phones that likely aren't cheap. But it's working on some that are more affordable for consumers.

"There's been a lot of work done lately around democratizing 5G for more people, getting 5G into more people's pockets," said Alok Shah, vice president of networks strategy, business development, & marketing at Samsung Electronics America. "We've got more devices outside of the premium tier that we think will get 5G to more people."

Huawei, the world's second biggest handset maker after Samsung, has already made some design tweaks to its devices, like adding a temperature sensor to its Honor Play 4 Pro so the smartphone can work as a thermometer. "You can actually do infrared temperature [sensing] of a person by holding it up to ... their face," said Tim Danks, Huawei vice president of risk management and partner relations. "That's obviously an evolution ... that's come out of a pandemic."

Already, there are promising signs that when Americans get some money, they spend it on mobile devices. 

In the US, phone purchases tumbled when shelter-in-place orders started. But sales spiked when stimulus checks started arriving in Americans' hands in mid-April, according to M Science, a data analytics provider that tracks stats like mobile adoption of 5G technology on Android handsets. 

"COVID had a serious effect on the amount of phones being sold," said Mark Bachman, the lead tech and telecom analyst at M Science. Ever since stimulus checks went out, "5G has steadily climbed each week," he said.

That's good news. While 5G is still in its early stages, widespread uptake of devices and broader deployments of the networks will enable applications not possible before. That includes self-driving cars and remote medicine beyond just video calls, not to mention faster internet access at home and on the go. All of those uses would come in pretty handy during the pandemic. 

"If there's one thing that's become quite clear, it's that we don't ever have enough bandwidth," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. 

CNET's Eli Blumenthal contributed to this report. 

Correction June 29: Fixes the first name of Qualcomm exec and clarifies where the Canadian spectrum auction is delayed.