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Wireless Cellular Industry Comes Together in the Time of Coronavirus

By Chris Pearson, President, 5G Americas

Just a few months ago, I had the opportunity to predict what the major storylines for 5G and LTE for 2020 were going to be: spectrum availability, more network densification, the move towards standalone 5G – and a vast increase in the number of 5G-enabled devices coming online.

What a difference a few months makes.

Today, the fast-moving strain of Coronavirus (“COVID-19”) is causing major disruptions throughout the world, as well as for the wireless cellular industry. We were galvanized by the cancellation of Mobile World Congress 2020 in Barcelona a little over a month ago, which has been followed up by re-schedulings of other events like The Big 5G Event, IoT World, and the IWCE Expo into later in the year.

It’s clear that COVID-19 is having some near-term negative implications for our industry. For instance, GSMA Intelligence is reducing their forecast for 2020 by more than 25 per cent: expecting around 150 million 5G connections globally by the end of the year. The US Federal Communications Commission has also delayed the 3.5GHz CBRS auction by a month, and the standards work for 3GPP Release 16 & 17 is also being delayed by around three months. Also there could some impact on the supply chain surrounding 5G New Radios manufactured in China.

But in addition to the bad news, there’s also some very hopeful positive green shoots emerging from the spring soil of 2020. It’s not entirely clear whether Coronavirus will slow down 5G growth or accelerate it. Indeed, some are suggesting that the move to quarantining and social “physical” distancing are fundamentally changing the future of work. Wall Street analysts like MKM Partners suggest COVID-19 could even accelerate society’s move to broadband and digitization by up to a decade, while ABI Research says effects of the virus will likely accelerate the current trend to make 5G supply chains more robust.

The recent move towards work-from-home appears to be causing a noticeable uptick in the amount of voice services and data being consumed. In just the past couple of weeks, the US has seen a 29% increase in peak usage, although the networks appear to be doing well and keeping up the demand.  Yes, less traffic on the paved streets and highways and more traffic on the communications lanes or super freeways. AT&T mentioned they have seen a 40% increase in mobile traffic and 100% increase in Wi-Fi calling. These might represent some long-term structural shifts in the way that people and companies consume data, which could herald a higher demand for 5G services.

What’s heartening about this entire episode is that the wireless cellular industry is coming together meet the challenge that COVID-19 represents. On March 13, 2020 the Federal Communications Commission issued the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. This pledge has asked companies not to terminate service to any residential or small business customers due to their inability to pay their bills due to COVID-19, waive late fees, and open their Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them. Additionally, the FCC waived gift rules for telehealth and remote learning, increased rural health care funding, granted providers additional spectrum to support more broadband use, waived Lifeline Program Rules for low-income consumers, and many other changes.

Since March 13, over 550 companies have signed up. Wow!

It’s great to be part of an industry that’s doing its part to keep people connected in these challenging times. Our 5G Americas member companies are also taking incredible individual efforts to address the COVID-19 disruption. For instance, Cisco is committing a whopping $225 million in the fight against the coronavirus, while Intel is donating more than a 1 million protective items for healthcare workers. Qualcomm added a $1 million donation to San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund, as well as to the Chinese Red Cross. Just really amazing stuff.

Here’s just a few things that some of our other members are doing, as well: (many more are not listed)

  • AT&T is offering 24/7 online support for its customers and a 20% bonus to front line employees, as well as connecting military and families at no cost.
  • T-Mobile has introduced its lowest priced smartphone plan ever, provided $500,000 to Feeding America and $100,000 to the COVID-19 Response Fund
  • Sprint is providing free next-day shipping and waived activation fees, providing unlimited data for 60 days for customers with metered data plans and 20GB of free mobile hotspot data
  • Ericsson has maintained all their production sites up and running to reduce impacts on LTE and 5G supply chains for the industry
  • Nokia has launched a Coronavirus Global Donation Fund to support charities hospitals, health clinics and other critical services
  • Telefonica added 30GB for two months at no additional cost for their Fusion and Movistar customers, increased educational content for parents, teachers, and students – as well as made their data and services available to public institutions to combat Coronavirus
  • Shaw has opened up their Wi-Fi networks to anyone, regardless if they are a Shaw customer
  • Ciena has shifted their engagement strategies with customers to digital platforms and virtual collaboration tools
  • CommScope continues to operate its main factories, with China at full capacity, to ensure the 5G supply chain is protected, as well as tightly monitor freight patterns to divert goods, if necessary

As the old adage goes, “May you live in interesting times.” This COVID-19 situation is certainly interesting. It continues to be fluid, so we can expect changes on a daily basis for forecasts, business plans, and economic reactions. But there’s one thing I know for sure: the wireless communications industry is filled with good-hearted people working for amazing companies who are working their hardest to keep the data flowing through this challenge.  The connected society is even more important to the way we work, live and socialize.

We owe the first responders, health care workers, government officials and everyone fighting COVID-19 a debt of gratitude. Together, we’ll get through this.

Stay safe and stay healthy.


Viewpoints are the expressed opinions of independent wireless industry analysts and stakeholders. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the 5G Americas association or its member companies. 

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