What a year it has been. We are not quite half-way through 2020 yet and it feels like we have lived a lifetime. Hopefully this pandemic is a “once in a lifetime event.” The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic turbulence has set the stage for the possibility of a new way of doing business, where remote work from home isn’t just an option, it’s been a necessity today and an real consideration for planning future physical plus (+) virtual office environments.
Wireless telecommunications providers have been part of the solution during this Covid-19 crisis making certain that we are all connected from wherever we are social distancing at home, work or at play — but where do we go from here?
At the peak of lockdowns, wireless cellular networks held up remarkably well to the strain of additional data traffic, as work-from-home data usage spiked dramatically. For instance, AT&T reported a 22% increase in its core network traffic and a 30% increase in wireless voice minutes. The new combined T-Mobile/Sprint saw mobile hotspot usage spike 60%, while tethering was up 57% for T-Mobile and 70% for Sprint.
Indeed, these increases in traffic seem to have persisted. Nokia finds peak traffic “normalizes” at 25%-30% above pre-pandemic levels and aggregate traffic volumes continue to be 25% over pre-pandemic levels. A recent survey from IBM found that 54% of people wanted to continue working from home, even after the pandemic had passed. Clearly, wireless cellular networks will need to continue improving rapidly to keep up with the additional demand of remote home workers.
Fortunately, 5G network operators and equipment manufacturers are stepping up to the plate. As a technology, 5G has more capacity over 4G LTE, all the while supporting higher peak data rates, on many more devices simultaneously, at a fraction of the latencies. As additional low band, mid band and mmWave high band spectrum is utilized in 5G deployments the increases by using 5G will be substantial. The world is going to need these capabilities as it digs itself out of the Coronavirus-induced economic hole and builds a stronger economy. Technology has always been a bright spot when it came to solving challenges and creating new efficiencies, and 5G will step up to the plate again to meet this challenge and be a key solution. In fact, 5G has the potential to be the glue to enable and incorporate all new types of services with cloud platforms, Artificial Intelligence, Edge Networking and smart platforms.
While some predicted a slowdown in the growth of 5G, the pace of new 5G network and device deployments, as well as subscribers, continues to progress in 2020. In June 2020, Omdia data indicates there are over 63.6 million 5G connections globally as of Q1 2020, which represents 308% growth over Q4 2019. Additionally, there are 82 5G commercial networks live today, a number which is expected to more than double to 206 by the end of 2020 according to data from TeleGeography.
Moreover, when it comes to new generations of wireless cellular, it’s typically the availability of new mass market devices capable of using the networks which increase the pace of subscriber adoption. Today, there over 100 commercial 5G device models available globally, according to the Ericsson Mobility June 2020 Report, as phone, tablet and laptop manufacturers have embraced the 5G marketplace and ecosystem.
However, this is not to say everything is running full steam ahead. COVID-19’s pernicious effects have caused some 5G features and capabilities to be delayed at important standards bodies like 3GPP, since face-to-face meetings cannot happen. Additionally, some regions are also experiencing a slight slowdown because of the impact of COVID-19 differently than North America.
For instance, the impact of COVID-19 is finally being felt Latin America’s and Caribbean’s telecom industry. The decrease in remittances arriving from Europe and North America together with the mandatory lockdowns due to the pandemic imposed by many regional governments decreased the purchasing power of a large percentage of the population. In Latin America and the Caribbean for these reasons and a few others itsithas led to a slower uptake of newer technologies.
Despite these current obstacles, 5G is still on track to become the quickest generation of wireless cellular technology to be widely adopted. People around the world are adjusting much more quickly to 5G than in any previous generation of wireless technology. For example, it took roughly 11 quarters, or until Q1 2012, for 4G LTE to reach the level where 5G is today. 3G did not reach that mark until after 12 quarters and 2G did not reached it until after 14 quarters. Indeed, according to Omdia’s projections, 5G is on track to hit 2 billion subscribers by 2024, just six years into the cycle – vs. eight for 4G LTE.
All of this is, of course, incredibly important for the stimulation of new business investment and creation of new services built around the capabilities of 5G. Each new wireless generation creates new opportunities for investment and new innovative services. With 2G, the era of texting was unlocked. With 3G, the mobile Internet, web browsing and the app economy emerged. With 4G, enhanced high speed data, all IP mobile connectivity and mobile video unleashed a torrent of new applications and businesses.
What could 5G bring? There are probably thousands of companies considering what they could do with 5G capabilities. Two examples that easily come to mind are the smart automated factory and real-time sporting events enhanced when it’s not possible to bring together large crowds of people. For instance, real-time manufacturing on the factory floor may require control over massive amounts of machinery and IoT sensors on a real-time basis with ultra-reliable low network latency. 5G live-streaming at sporting events or concerts could bring instantaneous feedback from thousands of mobile device users around the world in new ways to bring a mobile crowd into the experience.
This is all possible because 5G networks are architected from the ground up with the goal of delivering services. This “service-based architecture” (SBA) is designed to provide the right amount of network resources for any particular use case, which may have very different requirements. Businesses can harness these capabilities to create novel new business models which haven’t even yet been invented.
In this way, 5G creates a much needed multiplier effect by providing connectivity and mobility across numerous other “Industry 4.0” technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), cloud and edge computing, robotics, and unmanned and autonomous aerial vehicles (UAV’s). The impacts could be truly staggering. For instance, the global 5G IoT market size will grow from USD $0.7 billion in 2020 to USD $6.3 billion by 2025, according to MarketsandMarkets. In cloud computing, the global cloud radio access network (C-RAN) market alone is expected to reach USD $43.35 billion by 2027, expanding at a CAGR of 22.7%, according to Grandview Research.
It is for these reasons and many more that 5G Americas exists. We are a trade association that brings together partners and competitors across the entire supply chain of wireless cellular communications. Our 5G Americas Member Companies understand that in order to better serve customers and provide the best experience, they need to ensure that wireless devices can communicate with other devices, other people, and with other things – across national boundaries.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic damage has been felt around the world, it has not broken the will of collaborative partnership among the best wireless companies in the world. Together, we work to forge “the new normal” for wireless cellular communications through some of the most challenging times in recent memory.