5G will start to live up to its hype in 2021 -- for real this time

The technology's coverage will be broader. Devices will be cheaper. And we might start seeing applications that tap into 5G's benefits.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
11 min read

5G will continue to improve in 2021.

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

The rise of 5G and foldable phones invigorated the mobile industry, setting the stage for a big 2020. Then the novel coronavirus pandemic hit. The world, and phone sales, screeched to a halt.

But the funny thing is, in the midst of a global crisis, phone sales bounced back. 

As the virus was contained, and Asia opened back up, millions of customers in places like China scooped up new 5G phones . Handset makers held virtual events and introduced a wave of 5G phones, and carriers rolled out their networks. 5G sales in 2020 ended up being nearly as strong as expected before the pandemic even began, partly thanks to Apple and the introduction of a full lineup of 5G iPhone 12 models

This was supposed to be the year 5G went mainstream, of consumers seeking out the technology. But early speeds were a little underwhelming, so it could be 2021 is when 5G will actually be noticeably different. Coverage will get better. Speeds will get faster. Phones will get cheaper. It'll be the year when consumers will actually start clamoring for 5G, rather than it being an extra throw-in on the latest device. And 5G will expand to even more products beyond phones as we start to see the promise of 5G fulfilled.

"The activity is ... really incredible," Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said in an interview in mid-December. "In the middle of the pandemic, the device ecosystem really flipped the switch and flipped to 5G."

The continued advance of 5G is more critical than ever with COVID-19 radically changing our world. People are stuck at home and 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 responsiveness, could improve everything from simple video conferencing to telemedicine and advanced augmented and virtual reality. Gaming is another area that's expected to benefit from 5G's responsiveness and fast speeds. 

Instead of slowing down 5G, the pandemic in some ways made it easier for carriers to expand their networks faster. In China, the government made 5G's rollout a priority, and Apple's entry into the 5G market with the iPhone 12 has boosted the number of 5G phone users. 

The super-fast technology reached more customers this year than expected and will cover about 60% of the global population by 2026, according to a report last month from Ericsson. That makes 5G the fastest-deployed mobile network ever, the Swedish networking giant said. By the end of 2020, there will be about 218 million 5G subscriptions around the world, surpassing forecasts, and the number should nearly triple next year.

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But that doesn't mean the 5G that users have experienced so far has been exactly life-changing. While carriers expanded their networks in 2020, coverage still was spotty in many areas, with the fastest flavor, known as millimeter wave, nearly impossible to find. 

As 2020 progressed, things gradually started to change. Coverage got better, with the three biggest US carriers offering nationwide service. 5G connections got faster -- about double that of 4G LTE , at least on T-Mobile's low-band network, said the company's president of technology. Phones got a lot cheaper, like the $400 TCL 10 5G UW for Verizon's network, which is a whopping $900 less than one of the first 5G phones, 2019's Samsung's Galaxy S10 . And 5G expanded to iPhones , not just Android devices.

2021 will be about keeping that momentum and then supercharging it. 

"This is actually quite amazing progress we've seen in the industry," Patrick Cerwall, head of strategic marketing insights at Ericsson, said in an interview in late November.

An early start at CES 

CES will mark the first chance for companies to talk up 5G in 2021. The coronavirus pandemic has forced CES, like most tech events, to go all virtual. The conference will take place from Jan. 11 to 14, and it's likely to look nothing like it did the years that came before. But 5G is going to be everywhere, said Steve Koenig, vice president of research for the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES.

"Wherever you look across the [virtual] show floor, 5G will come up," Koenig said in an interview in mid-December. Ultimately, "it will really touch everything we're doing. That's obvious for mobile right now, but that's just where it starts. …  The climax of that is at that point where 5G is underpinning the global economy."

At the end of CES week, Samsung is expected to hold its first Unpacked of 2021, about a month earlier than the company's normal timin. Samsung likely will show off the Galaxy S21, going up against Apple's iPhone 12 lineup and giving Android buyers something new to covet earlier than usual. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is expected to come with five camera lenses and a stylus, possibly killing off Samsung's popular Note lineup. 

Cheaper devices

The first smartphones to hit the market with 5G were pricey, like Samsung's $1,300 Galaxy S10 5G. They often commanded a steep premium over their 4G variants and also required premium service plans. But prices for 5G phones have fallen quickly over the past several months as the coronavirus dampened consumer spending and the carriers tried to expand 5G's reach. 

Many handset makers have introduced mainstream devices alongside or shortly after pricier flagship models. Premium models, like Samsung's Galaxy S20 lineup, have seen steep discounts. And Apple even kept the price of its iPhone 12 Pro lineup steady with last year's phones, even though the new models all have 5G connectivity.

2021 should bring more inexpensive smartphones. While 5G is expected to be a game-changer, for many consumers right now, it's just an extra cost. The introduction of cheaper devices can help change that. Not only will handset makers introduce less expensive new devices, 2020's crop of 5G phones likely will stick around at lower prices. 

The number of 5G smartphones is expected to more than double to 600 million in 2021, according to Strategy Analytics. And in 2022, nearly half of all phones will have 5G. It took one year longer for 4G LTE to reach the 50% mark, the firm said. 

"5G is getting off to a more rapid start [than 4G]," Strategy Analytics analyst Ken Hyers said. "But what is really driving that really rapid start is how quickly China transitioned to 5G." 

The US had slower uptake this year, partially thanks to the pandemic, but 2021 is when shipments will nearly triple from this year's 36 million, he said. 

Verizon , for one, will have millimeter wave 5G phones next year that cost "just below $300," Brian Higgins, Verizon's senior vice president of consumer device and product, said in an interview in early December. And the premium charged for mmWave variants of phones "keeps condensing," he said. All of Apple's new iPhone 12 models in the US came with mmWave without charging a premium, even as companies like Samsung offered special, pricier versions for Verizon's network. 

In 2020, Samsung priced its mmWave, Verizon version of the Galaxy S20 FE $50 higher than the other $700 models, though Verizon offered a promotion to lower the cost, and its Galaxy A71 5G UW was also $50 more than the version without mmWave. Likewise, Google 's Pixel 4A 5G on Verizon was $100 more than the base $500 price

MmWave-enabled phones tend to be more expensive because they require more antenna modules and technology spread around the device to make sure the signal isn't obstructed. While mmWave can be blazing fast, a tree between the tower and user or hand in the wrong place on a phone could block the airwaves. 

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When it comes to phone pricing, "it's almost going to become immaterial whether you have mmWave in the device or not," Higgins said. 

Even inexpensive prepaid phones will broadly start to get 5G in 2021. T-Mobile's Metro brand offers three 5G phones -- the $700 Galaxy S20 FE 5G, the $400 T-Mobile REVVL 5G and the $500 Galaxy A51 5G -- but none is quite what someone would call dirt-cheap. 

"Clearly this year 5G became kind of standard in flagship phones," Finbarr Moynihan, general manager of sales for Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek, said in an interview in October. But newer chips, like MediaTek's Dimensity 700, are "going to enable mass-market 5G phones."

It's the new processors that will provide a lot of benefits for 5G users next year. Qualcomm will bring 5G to its lower-end Snapdragon processor powering phones from Motorola , Oppo, Xiaomi and others in the first quarter. 

And MediaTek's Dimensity 700 will enable 5G phones that cost less than $250 in the US and Europe in 2021. It likely will address an important market: prepaid smartphones in the US. "Dimensity 700 "will start to close the gap between 4G wireless and 5G [handsets] coming into the market," MediaTek's Moynihan said. 

Better coverage

This year saw the major US carriers build out their networks. But in 2021, carriers and devices on their network will be able to tap into some tools found in new processors to get even better speeds.

Qualcomm's X60 modem, which is found in its new Snapdragon 888 processor for high-end smartphones, will arrive in devices starting in the first quarter of 2021. That chip slightly bumps up download speeds to 7.5 Gbps, though uploads stay steady at 3 Gbps. You will, however, see faster average speeds, Qualcomm said. The X60 has the ability to tap into the slower, but wider reaching low-frequency bands and combine them with  faster mmWave spectrum, boosting overall performance. 

"Coverage is going to be built everywhere," Qualcomm's Amon said. "And we see it with mmWave happening in more places." Singapore and South Korea have joined the US and Japan in building out the technology, and 130 operators are now investing in mmWave, he said. "That's going to be happening across 2021."

One tool -- called dynamic spectrum sharing, or DSS -- lets carriers use the same spectrum band for both 4G and 5G. Instead of having different roads for buses and cars, DSS is like having one big highway with separate lanes for buses and cars. Verizon already employs this technology to power its nationwide 5G network, and the other carriers will use this to expand coverage next year. 

Then there's carrier aggregation, which combines multiple wireless signals into one. This allows for even higher speeds than when running on one band by itself. It's like combining several one-lane roads to make a multilane highway with a faster speed limit. Carrier aggregation has been common for years but will increasingly incorporate different flavors of 5G next year. 

Carrier aggregation in particular will benefit T-Mobile, which has a big network of low-band spectrum and sizable midband airwaves, which offers a nice compromise between speed and range. While initial 5G speeds on T-Mobile tapped into its slower low band and weren't much faster than 4G, that's already changing. Nationwide 5G speeds went from about 20% faster than 4G to doubling -- or sometimes tripling -- those speeds by the end of the year, Neville Ray, T-Mobile's president of technology, said in an interview in mid-December. And they'll get even faster in 2021, thanks to the company's efforts to build out its midband network.

"You start to see 400 megabit-per-second speeds at the end of this year and in '21, and that comes from basically committing and dedicating more spectrum," Ray said. Where carrier aggregation will really help T-Mobile is when it comes to getting 5G airwaves inside buildings, he said. 

He added that this technology will let T-Mobile extend the coverage from its cellular towers, offering more reach 

"We'll get more coverage out of the cell sites that we've built," he said. "If you think about your X square miles, 25% may not sound a lot, [but] it's a lot."

Verizon and AT&T also plan to build out midband networks, but they first need to obtain more spectrum in those airwaves. New chipsets overall will boost speeds and capacity and lower latency. 

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"Those three components are really important because then that gets into, OK what are the things that I can do on these devices, what kind of applications [can be built]," Verizon's Higgins said. "The network's going to change in a good way."

And AT&T sees lower latency -- shorter times between when the phone pings the network and when it responds -- as one of the biggest advancements in its 5G network in 2021.

"We've got plenty of speed for the applications out there now," Gordon Mansfield, AT&T vice president for converged access & device technology, said in an interview with CNET's Eli Blumenthal in mid-December. But lower latency will help enable 5G new capabilities that don't exist on mobile today like holograms, he said. 

For more about 5G network buildout, check out CNET's in-depth look later this week. 

Moving beyond the phone

5G has the ability to transform more than just phones. It has huge implications for robots, cars, health devices, retail and nearly every industry you can think of. 5G can link streetlights and other devices that haven't been connected to the internet before, with ubiquitous sensors constantly talking to each other. Emergency responders will be able to do more on the scene of an accident, while  farmers will be better able to monitor their crops and livestock. Even cows could become connected through tiny, low-power sensors. 

2021 is when more of those examples start to become reality. SAP in mid-December turned on Verizon 5G mmWave service in its Palo Alto, California, SAP Labs. Agriculture equipment maker John Deere in November bought spectrum to build out 5G networks for its factories in Iowa and Illinois. It will roll out the connectivity in 2022. "Implementing 5G in our manufacturing facilities allows John Deere to make significant progress in ... turning factories into smart and connected manufacturing facilities," Deere Chief Technology Officer Jahmy Hindman said in a press release. 

They're not alone. Bosch, Volkswagen and countless other companies have plans to build their own 5G networks in their facilities, making their robots even faster and more responsive. 

Robots today are heavily used in manufacturing, but they require wired connections. The accuracy needed is high, so Wi-Fi won't cut it, and neither will 4G. But with 5G, wireless can have the same low latency and high reliability as a wireline connection. 5G networks are designed to respond in less than a millisecond, compared with several milliseconds for 4G and Wi-Fi -- or more, depending on the use and the network. Going wireless comes with the benefit of being able to quickly move equipment around without having to disconnect and reconnect the machine's wires. 

For consumers, 5G will bring benefits to applications like gaming and video livestreaming. It will be used to give multiple viewing angles in sporting events and could lead to new products like augmented reality glasses or AR goggles that stream content from the cloud. And the latest standards for 5G will make it possible for automakers to use the technology for their cars to communicate with everything around them as early as 2021.

"Compute and network functions will move to the edge," David Christopher, executive vice president and general manager of AT&T Mobility, said in a statement. "All of this will start to enable real-time experiences in gaming, communication, autonomous vehicles -- and aircraft -- and many others."

5G also will come to more devices like hotspots, computers and  tablets  next year. In more cases, it will be able to replace your home broadband

T-Mobile in mid-December unveiled the new Inseego 5G MiFi-M2000 mobile hotspot that's capable of connecting up to 30 devices at a time. And in the first quarter, it will introduce a new home router product. Verizon and AT&T also have 5G hotspots that they hope will show people the possibilities with 5G -- faster downloads and uploads, lower latency, cheaper devices and, eventually, more applications. 

It's those new uses -- including in devices besides phones -- that will turn 5G from something that's nice-to-have to something people really need. And that may happen in 2021.

In 2019, "it was about getting 5G phones and faster speeds and making the technology real," Qualcomm's Amon said. "In '20, it was getting scale in phones. And in '21, you'll see that speed and performance everywhere. You'll get to deeper penetration of 5G into other price points. ... And you're going to start see applications beyond phones start to gain scale."

CNET's Eli Blumenthal contributed to this report.