The end of 2019 marked the official arrival of 5G, as years of hype and promises finally gave way to marketing and advertising by the “big four” US telecom companies like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.
While last year was characterized by the spread of 5G infrastructure across the country, performance was mixed and adoption by consumer was slow due to the relative lack of 5G compatible devices. 5G deployment was also hampered by confusion over what actually constitutes 5G, as well as pushback from communities over rushed antenna installation and health concerns about high-frequency radiation.
So, what does 5G have in store for 2020 and what will change?
Networks: Speed vs Availability
While the telecom companies clamor to corner the 5G market, they aren’t always clear about what the new service actually is. The term 5G is an updated standard of networking protocols running on different frequency bands. The lower frequency bands (which are still higher than those used for 4G) have a greater range, but the higher bands have faster data rates.
AT&T and Verizon are banking on the popularity of the faster “millimeter wave” service, which is only practical in highly populated urban areas. This allows them to boast the fastest speeds, but coverage is spotty and as a result, has proven to be unstable, causing user devices to revert back to slower networks like 4G. The higher bands also require a multitude of densely spaced antennas, which has been a cause for concern in many communities.
Meanwhile, Sprint and T-Mobile have taken a different strategy, concentrating on get consumers on the more reliable lower frequency network – thus being able to claim the greatest number of early adopters over the widest region. T-Mobile in particular, has been placing highly visible TV ads in prime time touting what they claim to be a nationwide 5G network. 2020 will reveal how these networks and deployment strategies compare, and how the problems with the high-frequency bands are resolved.
Regardless, however, consumers must own 5G compatible devices to be able to enjoy the service, and the coming year promises to see an explosion of 5G tech.
5G Consumer Tech: Cost vs. Usefulness
The beginning of a new year usually brings a new slate of electronics, updated phone versions, and a race to be the next big gadget with the latest tech. January is always exciting for tech-savvy consumers as new platforms and updated features are introduced with great fanfare at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
CES is often a bellwether of new consumer technologies for the coming year, but the biggest manufacturers typically use the stage to launch their next big surprise. Which phones will introduce 5G models? It’s not just phones, but tablets, pc’s, game consoles, and connected devices waiting to jump on the 5G train when it’s ready. Will consumers pay a premium price on a multitude of devices just for access to network that is still in its infancy?
While 5G network deployment outpaced the release of compatible devices in 2019, it’s completely possible that the trend will reverse this year. If the market is flooded with expensive phones made for a network that isn’t quite ready, we may see another year of slow 5G progress. Developers will be slow to introduce applications that take advantage of 5G if users are constantly reverting to the slower network.
Apple just released a statement they will not sell 5G compatible iPhones until about 2021 because of the desire to insource their own AiP (Antenna-in-Package) modules. According to Qualcomm Inc., it expects to sell 200 million 5G smartphones this year, and self-driving cars, smart appliances and devices even streetlights and drones are all part of the digital economy driving 5G to fame.
Looking beyond 2020, the 5G market expects to grow from $31 million to $11 trillion by 2026 because of investments in high-quality technology.
This biggest question of 2020 is whether it becomes the year 5G starts to take hold as the cultural norm. Consumers vote with their feet… and their wallets. 5G technology must be worth the extra cost. Networks, technologies, and applications will need to start developing in phase for 5G to have a big year. There are also pending lawsuits in several communities who are concerned about the proximity of high-frequency antennas to homes and schools. How these battles resolve will affect the readiness of networks for eager consumers.