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Despite the pandemic, 5G still rolls on

COVID-19 has forced businesses to reevaluate their plans for the year and beyond. But investment in 5G hasn't slowed nearly as much as other technologies.

An engineer installing a 5G station on a cell tower.

This is still happening, pandemic notwithstanding.

Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If you'd gone to any tech trade show in 2019, or read any tech publication, you'd have expected 2020 to be the year that 5G really hit its stride. And a global pandemic notwithstanding, it appears that it still is.

The pandemic has kept millions of people at home and caused countless businesses to reevaluate their plans for the year, if not longer. But it's also prompting people to rely on their cell phones more than ever before — for shopping, ordering products and paying for things instead of using cash.

"There's a recognition that we need bandwidth," Alok Shah, Samsung Network's VP of strategy, told Protocol. "5G isn't the solution to all problems for sure, but it will be an important part of the digital transformation that we're going through as a society, and so projects have continued to move forward pretty aggressively."

Building out the networks

For Samsung Networks, the South Korean tech giant's cellular networking hardware division, the pandemic hasn't really hindered its expansion plans into the U.S. "It was just a great time, a great opportunity for us to become a partner to Verizon, AT&T and U.S. Cellular, and expanding the business we had with Sprint," Shah said. Any issues the U.S. has with Chinese providers like Huawei aside, Shah said that companies only tend to link up with new providers when there's a new generation of networking connectivity in the works, rather than when it's mature. So to a degree, pandemic or not, this was going to be the time when more companies invested in 5G.

But the impact in actually rolling out those services hasn't been as severe as expected. Some municipalities may still be wrangling with providers over what 5G rollout looks like in their towns, but they're still open for business, despite lockdowns. "We expected some delays in the permitting process, because city offices were closed in some places," Shah said. "We expected that the pipeline of permitting approvals for installations would be affected — it really hasn't."

In fact, most of the major U.S. telecom companies have forged ahead with their biggest 5G projects for the year, even as COVID-19 cases in many states have shot back up. On Tuesday, T-Mobile announced that it was launching its standalone 5G network — meaning new infrastructure specifically designed for 5G, rather than upgraded 4G architecture — expanding coverage to an additional 2,000 cities across the country. Similarly, AT&T will roll out free access to its 5G network for its unlimited-plan customers on Friday.

And that buildout doesn't appear to be slowing down very much. A recent report from Gartner forecasts that although global investment network infrastructure is expected to fall by about 4% in 2020, 5G infrastructure spend is set to double last year's investments, with more than $8.1 billion being spent this year alone. Roughly one-fifth of all cellular infrastructure spending this year will be for 5G, according to the report.

While Gartner did pull back on its estimates for the year as a result of the pandemic, senior research principal analyst Michael Porowski compared it to a "slight tapping on the brakes, but not significantly with 5G" and said he expects investments to rebound into 2021. Investments into networking tech have been somewhat insulated from the economic pressures of the day, given that so many people are relying on their phones, Porowski said. "Telco connectivity has been put in a spotlight as sort of an essential service to facilitate everything that we're doing," he said.

Tomorrow's devices

Development on next-generation radio hardware has also continued. While Qualcomm is more known for its mobile processor and modem businesses, it's called "RF front-end" — which includes the amplifiers, filters, switches, tuners and other devices that are needed for an efficient 5G device — its next big business. Christian Block, the senior vice president and general manager of the business at Qualcomm, said the company never saw a complete halt in demand for its products this year, but rather demand slowed in waves as the pandemic moved around the world.

"The demand was moving down a bit, but I see already the outlook that the recovery is there, so I have a lot of things to do to meet the demand now," Block said. And even though the U.S. is still grappling with the pandemic at levels few other countries are — Block suggested that he won't be flying to the U.S. for in-person meetings anytime soon — that hasn't really slowed down demand for 5G hardware. "I see 5G is moving quickly, especially when we have really strong lockdowns, it was interesting that building up the network was even faster than I thought," he said.

Qualcomm is confident the business will continue to grow: Block said he's forecasting $750 million in revenue for his business for the last fiscal quarter of the year (analysts estimate that's up from $600 million in the same period last year), which would put it at $3 billion annually. 5G is a big driver of that growth, with the company forecasting a compound annual growth rate of around 12%, resulting in about a $18 billion industry over the next three years.

Samsung, for its part, is also pushing ahead with 5G consumer devices. It launched a midtier 5G device in June, the cheapest available in the U.S. at the time, and announced its new 5G Note 20 Ultra during a digital event on Wednesday. "Going forward, 5G and foldables will be major pillars of Samsung's future," the company's head of mobile, TM Roh said during the event. (That being said, Apple is likely to delay the release of its first 5G phone to later in the year, given supply-chain constraints.)

Build it — but will they come?

Although major carriers have continued to invest heavily in their 5G networks, eventually investors are going to want to start to see returns on those investments, pandemic or not. Both AT&T and Verizon recently reported that their revenues for the second quarter of the year were down over the same period last year (roughly 1% and 5%, respectively), but they were down less than analysts expected.

Still, there's no guarantee that these heavy investments in next-generation tech will pay off.

"The flip side to all this bullish talk about 5G is that there is going to need to be a continued business case made for the investment," Porowski said. "Telcos are going to continue to strive to find the use cases for making that investment and taking that jump to invest in 5G. And as of now, it's not clear what exactly that will be."

Smartphones will certainly make up a chunk of 5G sales in the future, but many of the transformative use cases we've seen spun about 5G over the years are going to need entirely new devices to work. AR glasses that rely on superfast, low-latency data connections to enable remote surgeries or truck driving; autonomous vehicles processing mountains of data per second in real time; connected cities — all these fantastic ideas that hint at the lucrative enterprise future of 5G rely on devices that don't exist yet. "The visibility into what's going to be the enterprise linchpin … that is a big question mark that's out there," Porowski said.

But even with the pandemic keeping so many stuck at home, the industry is trying to figure out what those devices will be. "We already see momentum for automotive and IoT, and that's critical that we are not only depending on the smartphone, which will remain our big base, but that we can build upon that strategy," Block said.

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