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5G in the USA: has Covid-19 stalled its rollout?

Jason Caralon, Flexential.
(Image credit: Future)

We had expected that there would be a “slow burn” rollout for 5G as we saw devices, locations, and overall service costs being a concern rolling into 2020. 

Then the pandemic hit and, like most things, 5G tower and device rollouts were disrupted as supply chains struggled to keep up, and quarantines kept nonessential workers at home. In May and June, as states in the US began the slow journey toward phased reopenings, 5G rollouts began again, and are now on track to roll out extensively throughout the end of 2020 and into 2021.

In fact, the importance of 5G has only grown due to the pandemic, especially with the acceleration of remote work; data speeds and increased network support are essential for those who are at home to do their jobs. Consumers, itching to watch their favorite professional sports begin again after postponed seasons, will also look to 5G to livestream their favorite games with little to no lag time. 

Students gearing up to go back to school online will utilize 5G to connect with their teachers and friends via Zoom. In fact, during this time, several large school districts across the US have begun distributing dedicated LTE MiFi access points for online education. 

"While many consumers won’t be able to stream at 1Gbps speeds until 2022 or later, they will have access to the network which is what they’re actually after."

Jason Caralon, Flexential.

While we know the pandemic has slowed 5G rollouts, there’s a lot of data that supports the idea that things are back on track and will actually accelerate faster. While many consumers won’t be able to stream at 1Gbps speeds until 2022 or later, they will have access to the network which is what they’re actually after. Device costs have come down, so expect broader device support later this year and in 2021.

In addition, many service providers are partnering with tower companies and edge data center providers to start to offer more location-specific density as 5G accelerates -- powering the edge use cases that many of us have been discussing over the last couple years.   Edge data centers are not just critical for 5G rollouts but for many of the advanced enterprise and public-sector applications of the future.   

Covid delays are temporary

 As of July 2020, 5G rollouts are moving forward full steam ahead; that’s not to say the influx of coronavirus cases across the US won’t hinder that, but as of right now things are on track. A second wave of stay at home orders and quarantines would impact 5G rollouts, but currently, tower companies in charge of the set up and roll out of 5G are back to a pre-Covid normal, which indicates that delays were only temporary. 

However, the pandemic has greatly affected supply chains, which are vital to 5G management as it is very gear heavy, requiring disk drives and SDN flash drives, among other things, to work correctly. If the majority of the United States continues to move backward, and supply chains are greatly disrupted again, delays in rollouts will become the norm. 

The good news is that even without the pandemic, devices weren’t going to be mature or at speeds consumers think of when they hear 5G, until at least 2021 in many major metro areas. With 5G, there’s an initial phase where many providers use the same management technology they’ve already used for 4G LTE networks; look to AT&T’s 5GE network as a strong example of this practice.

"The 5G evolution was already going to start with a slower version of 5G."

Jason Caralon, Flexential.

Because of this, the 5G evolution was already going to start with a slower version of 5G; the management capabilities are still in 4G and cannot keep up with the speed demands of 5G - yet. Experts have consistently said that 60% maturity in the United States for 5G coverage - at the speeds consumers want - will not happen until at least 2025. That prediction has not changed due to the pandemic.  

When will we get *real* 5G?

As was always the case, we will not see 5G speeds of 1Gbps for at least three years. The truth is, the leading network operators are struggling to find places to put the control or management networks critical for the radio access technology to support such high speeds, especially in metro areas with no room.

In large metro areas, there is no place large enough to place the computer and storage hardware necessary to support 5G speeds. Instead, some of the hardware may be sitting out of a tower location, while other hardware is inside of a data center or central office. Operators have contracts with data center providers across the US, as it requires a hefty investment in the computer hardware. Of course, there are exceptions to this, like Miami becoming a city-wide 5G hotspot in response to the Super Bowl in February, and there will definitely be more city-wide 5G rollouts, especially in cities hosting large events, like Tampa for next year’s Super Bowl. 

How Covid-19 has left its mark

The data speed needed for remote work has been the biggest change - and only lasting effect I’ve noticed - regarding 5G rollouts and the pandemic. Employees in offices are used to a certain level of data speed and, since the pandemic was not anticipated, most did not set up WiFi networks with the idea that they’d be utilizing their data for their work. (An office building will also have redundancy from a 5G tower, making it more resilient.)

But because of the increase in remote work, radio modems will need to evolve, and more towers will need to be built, which means more fiber paths in the ground, adding more redundancy to the network. Doing this will help the network get used to having access to numerous connections at all times. This, in my opinion, makes it an exciting time for network delivery services.

And barring a second wave, I believe consumers will be using 5G on the same timeline as if 2020 went as expected. But, no matter when it does eventually roll out, 5G isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it may be here faster than we thought.

Jason Carolan, Chief Innovation Officer at Flexential, a leading data center and hybrid IT provider with customers that include the MLB and PGA Tour. Flexentail provides partners with  an interconnected portfolio of capabilities – colocation, cloud, disaster recovery, managed and professional services – that can support business requirements as they evolve.