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Without the pandemic, what would the rollout and uses of 5G have looked like at this point in 2021?

Without the pandemic, what would the rollout and uses of 5G have looked like at this point in 2021?

Whether members of Protocol's Braintrust saw the pandemic as a drag or an accelerator, most agreed it helped boost the technology's visibility to the public.

Good afternoon! This week, we asked the experts to imagine a hypothetical world without a pandemic and consider how the 5G rollout (and its use cases) may have looked at this point in 2021. We wanted to dig in to what moved quicker, what moved slower or why the pace stayed the same over the past year despite the global situation to get a true sense of the development impact. Questions or comments? Send us a note at

Mo Katibeh

Chief Product & Platform Officer at AT&T Business

Our world changed in March, but what's incredible is thousands of our AT&T technicians and architects in the field continued to head out to work sites and were instrumental in us reaching a nationwide 5G footprint in July.

To put their achievement into perspective, we had launched 122 total markets between Q4 2019 and Q1 2020. In the month of April, despite the COVID crisis, we launched 122 more — an absolutely remarkable effort.

And even with COVID-19, we saw tremendous interest in how 5G could help improve business operations and create new employee and customer experiences. And I'd venture to say that the pandemic even accelerated the rate at which certain business verticals adopted the technology. As we all know by now, connectivity is at the core of how companies are evolving — especially in light of the pandemic — and 5G is one of the ways we'll help meet growing connectivity needs in 2021.

Our approach comes to life via three main service pillars: Mobile 5G, Fixed Wireless and Edge Computing. Combining these elements creates an environment that can ultimately transform retail, make autonomous vehicles a reality, make it possible to build smart factories and revolutionize healthcare. If you think about 2020 as the on-ramp year for 5G, 2021 is when we get on the highway. The network will start to mature. And we'll start to deliver on real life enterprise-grade capabilities.

John Roese

Global Chief Technology Officer at Dell Technologies

The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated a long-standing issue: Billions of people remain without the universal human right to internet access. However, while the pandemic underscored the need for greater digital inclusion, it hasn't had much of an effect on the rollout of 5G thus far. The biggest barriers to the 5G rollout have been lack of greater investment and targeted deployments coupled with segmentation — take care of these and you clear away innovation restrictions and get 5G deployment closer to mirroring the speed of the cloud and IT worlds, which has only gotten greater in the past year with the increased need for remote access.

We need to start rethinking how 5G systems should be built. We need to shift away from legacy telecom architectures and embrace virtual, software-defined, open and automated technologies. This requires investment from major IT and cloud companies, which needs to move faster. With the capital, resources and talent to build a national 5G infrastructure, cloud and IT systems can increase their participation in 5G and provide at-scale solutions sooner. We need to make 5G the responsibility of not just traditional telecom but a shared focus of the telecom, cloud and IT industries.

Dr. Ron Marquardt

Vice President of Advanced Technologies and Innovation at T-Mobile

T-Mobile's 5G rollout continued at breakneck speed despite the pandemic, while ensuring that employee and customer safety was paramount. With the changes in how we've lived our lives, access to reliable wireless connectivity has become even more critical, and we've seen significant changes to how businesses and consumers have relied on that connectivity this year. Workers moved out of offices and into their homes while children moved into remote learning. As a result, wireless networks have seen a significant increase in video calling.

And from the developer community we've seen an increased focus on new 5G use cases such as Mixed Reality and 3D Video Communications for better remote collaboration. The pandemic also accelerated the need for 5G connectivity and bandwidth not just in parts of some cities, but in suburban and rural locations too, putting an even greater reliance on home internet service. T-Mobile is working to launch 5G Home Internet to give people a better experience than they get from their current cable provider, and in many cases bringing them choice where there is none today.

Durga Malladi

Senior Vice President and General Manager, 4G/5G at Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.

The rollout of 5G has exceeded expectations in spite of the pandemic. More than 140 operators in over 60 countries having launched commercial 5G services today. Analysts on average predicted no more than 150 million 5G handsets would be shipped last year, but the industry shipped approximately 225 million in 2020. In 2021, we expect more than 550 million 5G handsets to ship, a milestone that 4G handsets took twice as long to achieve.

In the past year, the pandemic has underscored the importance of ubiquitous and dependable wireless connectivity, as the world has adjusted and adopted remote work styles, video based collaborative workplaces and online distance education. It brought to the forefront the importance of accelerating the transformative benefits of 5G as it relates to capacity, reliability and performance — as wireless communication has clearly become more intertwined with the future of society and personal connections. From that perspective, 5G commercial rollout with new features is even more significant in the expansion of seamless high-speed connectivity in our society and economy, be it education, healthcare or other industries. Today there's much broader understanding of the potential of next-generation 5G connectivity to not only keep us connected, but drive the digital transformation of societies and economies.

Doug Brake

Director, Broadband and Spectrum Policy at Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF)

There has definitely been at least some drag on 5G from the pandemic, but I don't think its a dramatic effect. The economic pain from the pandemic has reduced consumer demand and a slow-down in new device purchases. Social distancing slows the actual work of deploying infrastructure.

But I think we could see a real slingshot for 5G coming out of the pandemic. All of the puzzle pieces to large-scale advanced 5G are still coming together. In particular, new spectrum that is ideal for 5G is still coming online. With all of those in place and new 5G ready devices being sold, I think we'll see a big acceleration.

Leticia Latino van-Splunteren

CEO at Neptuno USA, Corp

The year 2020 was undoubtedly one where all previous projections and industry plans suffered major adjustments. Lockdowns heavily and negatively impacted an aspect of the business that even in normal conditions is considered a bottleneck, and that's site permitting. The challenges around technicians and crew mobility, especially during the first months of the pandemic, also contributed to a slower than expected rollout and to make things worse, the industry was already experiencing a workforce shortage to deploy at the required pace.

So, at first thought, I could be tempted to say, yes, without the pandemic the rollout would have been faster. I, however, feel that the industry needed an adjustment of sorts. Technology has been evolving way faster than users' needs and the regulatory framework that supports the wireless industry. The latest 5G mid-band Spectrum Auction just took place in December and it is important to keep in mind that mind-band spectrum availability is crucial for truly tapping into the full potential of 5G.

In my opinion, the most significant development of 2020 relates to technology adoption. The technology can be there, but if users don't embrace it, the digital divide would just get bigger, not smaller. Remote work, virtual learning, and telemedicine were all options before the pandemic, but there was no compelling event to embrace them. 2020 and the pandemic gave us that. We achieved a major user mind-shift, one that could have lasted years. This mind-shift will have a huge impact when users truly start to see the broad array of new products and services that 5G will enable. Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things have a better chance now than they had at this time last year.

Raghib Hussain

Chief Strategy Officer at Marvell

In aggregate, the impact of the pandemic appears to have further increased the importance of communication technology to economic growth and national security. The only minor delay last year was in Japan, which had originally coupled their 5G launch with their summer Olympics. When the Olympics were postponed, it took the pressure off a little bit in launching 5G in early 2020, and instead they are doing so now in 2021. In contrast, China accelerated their 5G deployment in 2020 as a means of economic stimulus.

The pandemic has also driven a significant increase in working and studying from home, which exacerbated the lack of high speed broadband in many regions. This has made fixed wireless broadband an attractive alternative to longer lead-time wired broadband capacity projects. The increase in telemedicine during the pandemic is likely to create new growth opportunities for 5G in the future. So, to answer the question, 5G roll out was not negatively impacted due to pandemic and, if anything, the importance of 5G was only accelerated.

John Godfrey

SVP, Public Policy at Samsung Electronics America

The coronavirus pandemic has made it abundantly clear that access to high speed broadband internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Even before the pandemic, people needed broadband to find and do work, manage their health, and study and learn. But with the acceleration of telework, telehealth, and distance learning, COVID-19 has raised the stakes of broadband deployment for all Americans.

Fortunately, both new and existing broadband networks have held up amazingly well under the pressure of the pandemic. With people working and studying at home, data usage on the kinds of mobile networks that Samsung supplies shifted dramatically in location (from downtowns to residential areas), time of day (from rush-hour peaks to all day and evening), and amount (with voice and two-way video traffic reaching daily heights previously seen only on Mother's Day).

As a leading supplier of both mobile and fixed wireless equipment, Samsung has been working with telecommunications operators throughout the pandemic to install 4G and 5G wireless infrastructure efficiently and safely, following all the proper protocols. What we've seen is operators from wireless to cable upping their interest in fixed wireless access via 5G or 5G-ready Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and other equipment that can empower underserved communities with reliable, fast-to-deploy service. Recently, Samsung introduced a fully-virtualized 5G radio access network (vRAN) solution, which is available now and can accelerate the deployment of 5G to the masses in a cost-effective, agile way.

In the post-pandemic world, such solutions will play a crucial role in expanding consumer broadband access. However, while the good news is that expansion of national 5G networks has gone on largely unimpeded, the pandemic has slowed adoption on the enterprise side: with telework, and limited access to facilities that do remain open such as factories and warehouses, installation of small on-site 5G networks has been slower than planned, delaying the deployment of 5G in enterprise settings.

See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated Feb. 18, 2021).
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