In 2021, 5G will begin to live up to its hype – this time for real

The coverage of technology will be wider. The systems would be less costly. And we might begin to see applications that tap into the advantages of 5G.

The mobile industry was invigorated by the advent of 5 G and foldable phones, setting the stage for a major 2020. Then the pandemic of the novel coronavirus struck. The nation, and the sales of mobile, screeched to a halt.

But the funny thing is, phone sales bounced back in the midst of a global recession.

As the virus was suppressed, and Asia opened up again, millions of consumers scooped up new 5G phones in places like China. Digital activities were held by handset makers and a flood of 5G phones were launched, and carriers rolled out their networks. Thanks in part to Apple and the launch of a complete lineup of 5G iPhone 12 models, 5G sales in 2020 ended up being almost as high as anticipated before the pandemic even began.

This was expected to be the year 5G went mainstream, the technology being pursued by customers. But early speeds were a little underwhelming, so it could be 2021 before 5G is really going to be dramatically different. Coverage could get stronger. The speeds are getting higher. Phones are going to get cheaper. Instead of being an optional throw-in on the new smartphone, it’ll be the year that customers will finally start clamoring for 5G. And 5G will extend beyond phones to even more goods as we continue to see 5G’s pledge fulfilled.

The activity is very amazing,”The activity is … really incredible,” “In the middle of the pandemic, the device ecosystem really flipped the switch and flipped to 5G.”

With COVID-19 changing our world dramatically, the continued advance of 5G is more important than ever. People are trapped at home and maintain their distance from each other, causing them to rely on home broadband service—something that could be exacerbated by 5G. From basic video conferencing to telemedicine and advanced augmented and virtual reality, the next-generation cellular technology, which boasts from 10 to 100 times the speed of 4G and rapid responsiveness, will boost anything. Another sector that is supposed to benefit from the responsiveness and high speeds of 5G is gaming.

Instead of slowing down 5G, the pandemic made it possible for carriers to develop their networks more rapidly in several respects. In China, the government made the rollout of 5G a priority, and the entry of Apple into the 5G market with the iPhone 12 increased the number of users of 5 G phones.

According to a study last month from Ericsson, the super-fast technology reached more customers this year than anticipated and will cover about 60 percent of the global population by 2026. The Swedish networking giant said that this makes 5G the fastest-deployed mobile network ever. There will be roughly 218 million 5G subscribers around the world by the end of 2020, surpassing estimates, and the figure could almost triple next year.
But it doesn’t mean that the 5G that users have seen so far has necessarily changed their lives. Although carriers extended their networks in 2020, coverage in many areas was still spotty, almost impossible to find with the fastest flavor, known as millimeter wave.
Things gradually began to improve as 2020 progressed. Coverage has increased, with national coverage offered by the three major US carriers. 5G links have become faster—about twice that of 4G LTE, at least on the low-band network of T-Mobile, said the technology president of the group.

Phones have become much cheaper, like the Verizon network’s $400 TCL 10 5G UW, which is a whopping $900 less than one of the first 5G phones, the 2019 Samsung Galaxy S10. And 5G has extended to iPhones, not just smartphones for Android. 2021 is going to be about preserving the momentum and then overcharging it.

“This is actually quite amazing progress we’ve seen in the industry,” Ericsson’s Head of Strategic Marketing Insights, Patrick Cerwall, said in an interview at the end of November.

Early beginnings at CES

CES will mark the first opportunity in 2021 for businesses to talk about 5G. The coronavirus pandemic has forced CES to go all interactive, like most tech cases. The conference is expected to take place from Jan. 11 to 14, and the years that have come before are unlikely to look like anything. But said Steve Koenig, vice president of research for the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, 5G is going to be everywhere.

“Wherever you look across the [virtual] show floor, 5G will come up,” Koenig said in an interview in mid-December. Ultimately, “it will really touch everything we’re doing. That’s obvious for mobile right now, but that’s just where it starts. …  The climax of that is at that point where 5G is underpinning the global economy.”

At the end of CES week, Samsung is expected to hold its first Unpacked of 2021, about a month earlier than the company’s normal timin. Samsung likely will show off the Galaxy S21, going up against Apple’s iPhone 12 lineup and giving Android buyers something new to covet earlier than usual. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is expected to come with five camera lenses and a stylus, possibly killing off Samsung’s popular Note lineup.

Cheaper devices

The first smartphones to hit the market with 5G were pricey, like Samsung’s $1,300 Galaxy S10 5G. They often commanded a steep premium over their 4G variants and also required premium service plans. But prices for 5G phones have fallen quickly over the past several months as the coronavirus dampened consumer spending and the carriers tried to expand 5G’s reach.

Many handset makers have introduced mainstream devices alongside or shortly after pricier flagship models. Premium models, like Samsung’s Galaxy S20 lineup, have seen steep discounts. And Apple even kept the price of its iPhone 12 Pro lineup steady with last year’s phones, even though the new models all have 5G connectivity.

2021 should bring more inexpensive smartphones. While 5G is expected to be a game-changer, for many consumers right now, it’s just an extra cost. The introduction of cheaper devices can help change that. Not only will handset makers introduce less expensive new devices, 2020’s crop of 5G phones likely will stick around at lower prices.

The number of 5G smartphones is expected to more than double to 600 million in 2021, according to Strategy Analytics. And in 2022, nearly half of all phones will have 5G. It took one year longer for 4G LTE to reach the 50% mark, the firm said.

“5G is getting off to a more rapid start [than 4G],” Strategy Analytics analyst Ken Hyers said. “But what is really driving that really rapid start is how quickly China transitioned to 5G.”

The US had slower uptake this year, partially thanks to the pandemic, but 2021 is when shipments will nearly triple from this year’s 36 million, he said.

Brian Higgins, Verizon’s senior vice president of consumer electronics and goods, said in an interview in early December that Verizon, for one, will have millimeter wave 5G phones next year that cost “just below $300,” And the premium paid “keeps condensing,” for mmWave variants of phones, he said. Without charging a premium, all of Apple’s latest iPhone 12 models in the US came with mmWave, even as companies such as Samsung introduced separate, pricier variants for the Verizon network.

In 2020, Samsung priced $50 more than the other $700 versions for its mmWave, Verizon’s Galaxy S20 FE version, while Verizon offered a price reduction promotion, and its Galaxy A71 5G UW was also $50 more than the mmWave-free version. Similarly, the Pixel 4A 5G from Google on Verizon was $100 more than the $500 base price.

MmWave-enabled phones appear to be more costly because to ensure that the signal is not obstructed, they need more antenna modules and technology distributed across the system. While mmWave can be blazing fast, a tree between the tower and user or hand in the wrong place on a phone could block the airwaves.