When 5G wireless service appeared in the first few US markets more than two years ago, it arrived on a wave of anticipation. The industry itself, media sources, and government entities such as the FCC had built enormous anticipation among tech-savvy consumers.
5G, they said, would unlock a whole new world of more reliable, low-latency service and incredible fast-speed downloads that would enable the rapid evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT), an interconnected network of sensors bringing greater automation and efficiency to our society.
All those things are still expected to happen, but for many consumers, the promise of 5G remains unfulfilled.Android Authority recently assessed the 5G rollout timeline in the US to date and concluded that the industry had done a poor job managing consumer expectations. Many consumers appear to have expected 5G to arrive at full force overnight. It hasn’t, and it will likely be a few years before most customers have a top-level 5G experience. Yet the varied companies and firms that make up the industry—telecommunications, manufacturers, component providers, analytics firms, and industry press, among others—appear to remain optimistic that the day is soon to come.
Here’s a look at where 5G stands in 2021—the reality, expectations, customer experience, obstacles, recent strategy shifts, and efforts underway to speed up the 5G rollout timeline.
5G Status Check
We are now a few years into the rollout and 5G remains in its infancy. In part, that reflects the complexity and time-intensive nature of the deployment. Top-level 5G service requires a dense cellular network to deliver high-speed, low-latency mobile service, and that network cannot be built overnight, even with the 2018 FCC-approved rules to speed up the process. Upper-end 5G relies on thousands of short-range small cell installations on utility poles, streetlights, buildings, and stand-alone structures to fill gaps in coverage.
But the 5G rollout timeline has been slower than expected for another reason as well: the COVID-19 pandemic that struck roughly a year after 5G deployment got underway. The pandemic caused an increase in remote work, creating higher demands on broadband service, and also caused equipment shortages, which hindered and complicated installation of cellular equipment that would have helped make the transition smoother.
Where 5G stands in the US
Access: Lifewire cites a PwC report that 75% of the country had access to some type of 5G service by January 2021, but only a fraction of that total represented top-level mmWave, the fastest form of 5G (and the one that can best deliver the technology’s most-hyped benefits). For example, AT&T offers low-band 5G service in more than 14,000 cities and towns, but mmWave is in only 38 cities, including Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, and Jacksonville.
Subscribers: According to eMarketer, 5G subscriptions in the US increased from 1.3M at the end of 2019 to 15.8M by late 2020. Subscriptions are projected to hit 41.3M this year and increase rapidly for the next few years, hitting an estimated 167.9M in 2024. Forbes reports that prices for 5G devices have dropped rapidly and are headed even lower.
Anecdotally, customers who had anticipated much higher speed and reliability out of the gate have expressed disappointment, and not all consumers who own 5G phones are using 5G connectivity. In a poll of roughly 1,300 people with 5G phones, Android Authority reports that just over 50% always had their 5G connectivity enabled. In contrast, almost 40% kept 5G turned off all the time. About 10% used 5G, but turned it off occasionally. Some said they simply found 4G LTE more reliable at this point.
Speed: Has 5G increased download speed overall? According to Android Authority, the answer is yes, but not yet to the 100Mbps-plus levels touted before the rollout began. So 5G is still arriving and probably will be for several years. However, the industries involved have clear goals, and both the federal government and state legislatures are trying to remove obstacles to help us realize the promise of 5G faster.
In Pursuit of the Ideal
There are three forms of 5G:
Easier to provide and is already available across much of the US. Speeds are somewhat better than 4G, but not at the high level consumers may expect when they think of 5G.
- High-band mmWave
Requires a dense network of small cell equipment along with macro towers. This configuration provides the highest speeds, but is more difficult to maintain because of the short-distance signals. For now, it’s limited to large cities.
Offers much higher speeds than low-band and carries much farther than mmWave. Beefing up mid-band coverage may ultimately be the key to consumer satisfaction with 5G. Although T-Mobile is the only company with widespread mid-band, other large providers are moving to expand it throughout their networks.
As Forbes explains in this analysis, the goal ultimately is a comprehensive 5G network that seamlessly blends low-band, mid-band, and, to the extent it’s practical, mmWave into a seamless consumer experience.
Efforts to Help
A major drag on speedy deployment of comprehensive 5G has been limited spectrum, particularly mid-band. Both the Innovation Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) have stressed the need for making more mid-band spectrum available to 5G providers.
The FCC announced that its priorities include making both more high-band and more mid-band spectrum available, as well as improving use of low-band. In February, the commission held a large auction of C-Band spectrum (a segment of the mid-band), but more is needed.
Other actions to boost deployment and accelerate the 5G rollout timeline:
- The FCC issued orders in 2018 allowing providers to perform their own attachment of small cell equipment to utility poles (One Touch Make Ready - OTMR) as well as setting timelines and fee guidelines for municipalities to rule on small cell permit applications.
- A Broadband Data Task Force established by the FCC will collect detailed data and develop more precise maps about broadband availability in the US. This information will be used in efforts to close the digital divide, as reported in The National Law Review.
- Over 25 states have enacted legislation to streamline regulations in a way that facilitates deployment of 5G small cell equipment, as summarized here by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
- In late 2020, the FCC awarded funding to support providing high-speed broadband to five million homes and businesses in previously unserved areas, the first of two funding phases under the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).
- Last year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) established an initiative supporting research and development to maximize spectrum use, as noted in The National Law Review.
- Members of the US Senate and House of Representatives have introduced at least 30 bills this year addressing aspects of 5G deployment, including initiatives to promote and streamline deployment, develop the workforce, and require assessments to ensure adequate spectrum for the IoT. The National Law Review provides a brief summary.
Wireless providers have not been sitting still. Fierce Wireless cites CTIA statistics showing that close to 68k new cell sites were activated between 2018 and 2020, more than in the previous seven years combined.
The increased emphasis on mid-band, however, has led to some shifts in deployment strategy. For example, Fierce Wireless reports that providers are giving macro towers priority over small cell in current infrastructure orders, leading some cellular equipment makers to reduce their outlook for production.
In such a massive undertaking, obstacles inevitably arise that make collaboration between industry partners essential for success. Communications providers, government, industry partners, the business community, innovators, and think tanks all have a stake in the quality-of-life improvements better technology can bring to our country and to the world.
At Alden, we understand that we all work better when we work together, and we have our part to play. Alden One, our powerful platform for automating business processes, streamlines the complex data management tasks that come with high-tech 5G deployments.
Learn how we can help you turn these projects into reality: Book a meeting here.