Despite many devices boasting 5G capabilities these days, a recent study showed people in the U.S. spend less than 25% of their online time connected to a 5G network. This may be because 5G-enabled devices are outpacing 5G access. Last year, 14 million users subscribed to mobile 5G services, and the number was forecasted to grow to 554 million by the end of this year. Today, more than halfway into 2021, T-Mobile has already connected 305 million people with 5G networks. Along with T-Mobile, other major mobile operators like Verizon and AT&T were quick to roll out 5G in the last few months, collectively covering 75% of the U.S.
On paper, the numbers look great, making it seem like 5G covers most of the country. In practice, there’s a discrepancy, with many people still not operating on 5G networks. What accounts for this discrepancy? We asked the experts.
The pandemic hurdle
Rollout of 5G capacity was speeding along until it slammed into a big wall in the form of the pandemic. “We’ve had to rely on telecommunications to connect with our friends, family, and colleagues. That’s caused a sudden emphasis on wireless connectivity — especially with remote work — which puts pressure on companies to accommodate increased demand,” says Shawn Carpenter, program director at Ansys, a company that helps in the engineering of 5G hardware.
While 4G was enough during the pre-pandemic period, when most things happened in person, 4G was not designed to support our current demand level or to support non-smartphone applications such as the Internet of Things, says David Witkowski, founder and CEO of Oku Solutions, a wireless telecom consultation firm.
To help solve the sudden connectivity crisis that came with the coronavirus spread, 5G operators and 5G-focused startups also started to come up with unique solutions to provide efficient health care and educational services. For instance, Unmanned Life developed a 5G autonomy-as-a-service platform that can provide autonomous drones to disinfect COVID-prone regions, deliver essentials like medical supplies and food, and monitor crowded spaces from a distance. These innovations are great, but they also put more strain on the network.
Mobile 5G subscriptions for general consumer use are still lagging.
From a consumer standpoint, more people have had time to spend on their phones for both work and leisure, nudging them to prioritize their networks in a way that wasn’t necessary before.
With demand for 5G increasing, you’d expect network providers to respond by boosting capacity. Yet, despite these developments, mobile 5G subscriptions for general consumer use are still lagging. The path to widespread 5G rollouts still has quite a few obstacles, experts say.
The infrastructure challenge
Infrastructure is a challenge, Carpenter says. “Fundamentally, in order to get faster service and pump more data wirelessly, we need more electromagnetic spectrum … As we enter the 5G spectrum, we’re working with distances of a few city blocks or less. And buildings go from sponges to mirrors — signals bounce off of them as opposed to penetrating walls and reaching your cell phone.”
There’s also the issue of where to place all of these access points inside buildings so that we’re not overcrowding spaces with routers or leaving areas with no connectivity, he adds.
Even if the infrastructure was managed somehow, implementing consumer-use 5G in a broad capacity may be difficult.
“A key challenge is managing customer expectations: A lot of the anticipated benefits that would occur from a fully functioning 5G network – minimal latency, network slicing, advanced [augmented reality]/VR apps, incredibly fast upload and download speeds, fully autonomous driving with vehicle-to-everything communications (V2X) – won’t happen until 5G stand-alone (5GSA) comes to fruition (still a bit away),” says Dr. Paul Carter, CEO and founder of Global Wireless Solutions (GWS), a wireless network testing, and consumer research company.
“Consumers are being promised the moon with 5G. Without some level-setting, it will be easy for their expectations to outweigh the current tangible benefits,” he adds.
The rural-urban divide
With the growing presence of 5G networks, the question arises: Will 5G bridge the rural-urban divide or will it make things worse?
It’s a mixed bag. There may be problems initially when the infrastructure is still being built, but massive benefits await down the line, experts say.
Dee Dee Pare’, senior product marketing manager of Cradlepoint, says 5G will increase the reach of networks. “As 5G becomes a norm across business and consumer use cases, 4G and LTE will become even more accessible. Rather than looking at 5G developments widening a gap, think of it as elevating wireless connectivity as a whole. It’s a gradual evolution that will benefit businesses and their customers regardless of location — rural or urban,” she says.
Some experts, like Grant Castle, vice president of device engineering and technology labs at T-Mobile, believe it has already worked toward narrowing the gap. “With T-Mobile’s Extended Range and Ultra Capacity 5G, we are reaching rural America, where people for decades have dealt with subpar internet access,” Castle says. “In fact, we already have rural homes running their entire home on our 5G Home Internet router.”
Carter says the potential benefits would depend on how the 5G providers handle the rollouts. “Each of the three major operators are trying to find the right balance of launching 5G across the entire country,” he says. “GWS has observed Verizon launching the mmWave in urban areas to start while T-Mobile is prioritizing deploying lower bands, making 5G available in several rural markets.”
A fixable problem
Carter says the amount of available spectrum for 5G while 4G and 3G networks are still operating may be limited. “While 3G’s turn-off date is scheduled for early 2022, there has been some pushback by folks outside the industry to maintain that generation of wireless networks. It is a move that would hinder 5G’s rollout, as freeing up that spectrum would allow operators to allocate it towards improving 5G’s rollout,” he said.
Some solutions to common 5G problems are quite intuitive, like Carter’s suggestion to manage consumer expectations from the start, while others may require much more capital investment and time. The bottom line is that most issues cropping up can be managed to a large extent.
“Companies are solving the infrastructure problem, known as the outside-in problem, by placing an antenna on the outside of buildings to receive signals from a base station,” Carpenter says. “Once that signal is received, it’ll have to run through something, like a fiber optic cable, and be amplified within the building by another device, like a Wi-Fi 6 router or interior 5G access point.”
For the issue of access points, simulation could be a solution, he continues. By simulating 5G signals and their propagation throughout the building, companies can understand the coverage area and optimize the number of access points. That eliminates the need to have someone walking through your office building on the phone asking, “Can you hear me now?”
These may seem to be daunting issues at first, but Carter and most of the experts we spoke with believe they are solvable problems, meaning 5G rollouts could continue to speed up, or at least remain stable, in the near future. For the first time, consumers are making significant demands on 5G networks, and where demand goes, supply usually follows.