CES 2021 prediction: 5G talk will dominate this year's virtual conference

Verizon will kick off the show with a keynote on 5G. And while not officially part of CES, Samsung will cap things off by introducing its 5G-enabled Galaxy S21 line.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
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Verizon 5G logo at CES keynote

Verizon at CES 2020. It's like that again this time around, only completely virtual. 

Angela Lang/CNET

CES 2021 is filled with loads of uncertainties. How does the show replace the excitement of hands-on time with gadgets when everything is remote? Is there anything worth tuning in for? Will the heavy hitters of the tech industry show up? But one thing is for sure: 5G will be front and center at the trade show, which kicks off next week in a virtual format. 

Read more: Top 6 trends to expect at CES 2021

Like last year, 5G will dominate the conversation. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg is the first keynote speaker at CES, kicking things off Monday evening with a talk about the next-generation cellular technology. Capping off the show on Thursday will be Samsung, which is expected to unveil its Galaxy S21 family -- 5G-enabled, of course -- in a separate event that isn't officially part of CES, but that will capture much of the same audience. In between, expect a lot of 5G.

"Wherever you look across the [virtual] show floor, 5G will come up," Steve Koenig, vice president of research for the Consumer Technology Association, said in an interview with CNET senior reporter Shara Tibken. Ultimately, he said, "it will really touch everything we're doing."

Also like last year, there won't be too many 5G phones beyond Samsung's offerings. CES has never been a mobile-centric show, with launches occurring later in the year. 

But the environment is radically different than in last year's show. For one thing, millions more people have a 5G device, thanks to a flood of phones that launched over the past 12 months, including Apple's iPhone 12 family and cheaper options like TCL's 10 5G UW for Verizon. Beyond phones, 5G-connected computers may make an appearance, according to Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies. 

"It's mainstream from a product hype perspective," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research. 

At a show where many of tech's heavy hitters, like Google, will have minimal presence and show goers won't have a chance to get their hands on products, discussions about the future of technologies like 5G hold more weight. 

Networks are far more mature as well, with all three major US carriers offering nationwide 5G coverage. Vestberg, who was a keynote speaker at CES in 2019, was last seen in November on stage with Apple CEO Tim Cook to tout his 5G network with the iPhone 12, and he's likely to press that momentum on the virtual stage at CES. 

Indeed, 5G could spark a shakeup among the carriers and their respective reputations for network quality, according to CNET editor Eli Blumenthal. While Verizon sports a short-range but super-fast network to augment its slower nationwide coverage, T-Mobile has been rolling out a network using a type of spectrum that offers a good mix of range and speed, potentially giving it the best 5G experience out of the big three. T-Mobile and AT&T have also both deployed that speedy, short-range network, called millimeter wave, but at a smaller scale than Verizon. 

AT&T and T-Mobile are largely sitting this CES out from a 5G front, giving Verizon the full stage. 

But that doesn't mean there won't be plenty of chatter about 5G at the show. CNET will hold a panel (quick plug: I'll be hosting it) on how 5G might be used to solve some of the issues exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, from closing the digital divide to making telemedicine more palatable and creating more engaging remote learning experiences. 

CES will feature nearly 20 sessions on the topic, exploring areas from 5G powering automation to aiding farming technology. Smart cities will also be on the agenda. 

"Much of the focus will still be on justifying the investment, proving the ROI both from a consumer and business point of view," Milanesi said.

A lot of these discussions revolve around big ideas that have equally big demands when it comes to network speeds. Until now, 5G has largely been about bringing higher speeds to your phone. But the talk is quickly progressing to these other applications, even if we may not see them all in the real world for a while. 

Still, it's important that the consumer electronics industry have these discussions now, so it can plan for applications that will emerge in the coming months or years. 

CNET's Shara Tibken and Eli Blumenthal contributed to this article. 

Correction at 8:59 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story misstated the timing of Samsung's event. It will take place on Thursday.

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