5G: Did COVID–19 Mar the Grand Rollout?

Published on 23 Jul, 2020

The rollout of 5G, expected globally in 2020, took a beating as COVID–19 struck with all its might, taking one country after another. To deal with the highly contagious virus, lockdowns were imposed across the globe that completely derailed the rollout of 5G. While spectrum auctions and implementation have resumed, the tempo has slowed significantly compared to the speed with which 5G was being rolled out; however, there is hope that the delay will not have a long-term impact.

5G, one of the most-awaited technologies, is a breakthrough in communication—not only does it improve speed significantly but is also capable of supporting the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem. Facilitating communication between innumerable connected devices, 5G is a high speed, high potential network that is also affordable, and, therefore, expected to be used widely. The technology was all set to take over nations globally, when the COVID–19 outbreak put brakes on it.

Despite the halt, most countries have either initiated the rollout or are on the verge of it. South Korea, China, Germany, France, and the US are the frontrunners that have held 5G auctions and are now working on enhancing its capabilities. The first to adopt the technology would be global cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, Seoul, Mumbai and London.

Background: 5G public and private spectrum auctions
In any country, every new network needs to be auctioned to bidders before it becomes available to users. Spectrum auction is a process whereby the government sells the rights to mobile carriers to transmit signals over specific bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, and allocates spectrum resources that are scarce.

Bidders for public 5G spectrums are largely mobile carriers such as Verizon, AT&T and Vodafone. Companies such as Volkswagen and Bosch are interested in private 5G auctions. Volkswagen has confirmed plans to build 5G networks at its German plants for a robust factory system. Chances are that Daimler and BMW will follow suit. As an IoT company, Bosch has also applied for spectrum license as this will enable it to build a completely ‘mobile’ factory environment.

All countries are either auctioning public 5G or have already auctioned it. In the US, as soon as 5G auctions opened, they drew several players in the mobile industry competing to obtain the rights and attract new subscribers. However, lack of airwave spectrum proved to be a challenge.

According to the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), in February 2020, 23 countries worldwide had allocated 5G C-band spectrum with airwaves in the range of 3300–4200 MHz for mobile broadband. Of these, only Germany and Japan are auctioning private 5G, while the rest have had public auctions. Australia may reserve spectrum for private 5G later. The 26 GHz band or indoor/local 5G spectrum auctioning is still pending in most geographies.

Delay caused due to COVID–19
The pandemic forced Europe to delay its 5G auctions, particularly countries such as Portugal, Austria, and Spain.

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is responsible for developing the global 5G technology standards. In March 2020, it announced a three-month delay in the timeline for the completion of two upcoming releases for 5G specifications: Releases 16 and 17. It also took the decision to cancel face-to-face meetings through June 2020. Incidentally, industry players believe that remote work and online education, amid the pandemic, have created the demand for faster, reliable connectivity, which bodes well for 5G. However, amid complete shutdowns, infrastructure building activities, a prerequisite for the network, have also come to a standstill, negatively impacting the planned implementation.

A rather unexpected negative impact of COVID–19 on 5G plans was due to a conspiracy theory. Almost 77 5G towers in the UK were attacked and burnt as rumors floated that the towers were helping the virus spread. Later, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had to release an advisory confirming that viruses, including coronavirus, did not travel on radio waves or mobile networks. However, the damage had already been done.

Ironically, 5G technology proved to be an effective warrior against coronavirus in China. To begin with, 5G was used to implement online diagnosis and treatment platforms, reducing the chances of infection as people did not have to travel to hospitals. Apart from this, many hospitals interconnected with 5G started using cloud-based medical and nursing robots, disinfection and cleaning robots, drug delivery robots and temperature-taking patrol robots to manage ward isolation.

Impact of delay on industries

  1. Healthcare – As telemedicine picks up, a network with bandwidth to cater to an increasing number of patients will be needed. Healthcare givers need network like 5G for patient monitoring and remote diagnosis through real-time imaging. It will also improve treatment capabilities in remote locations, allowing fast and easy communication between patients and doctors. The delay in its rollout may literally cost lives in some countries.
  2. Enterprise communications – Due to the pandemic, companies worldwide have switched to the work from home (WFH) model. This has created many cybersecurity issues, besides straining existing networks. Countries with 5G benefitted, as wide availability of bandwidth paved the way for installation of advanced security features via network slicing and edge computing. Moreover, 5G is a viable option for enterprises to connect to various clouds more cheaply than other access technologies. Therefore, countries still waiting for the connectivity are losing out on the many advantages it offers.
  3. Education – Online school and smarter classrooms are the future of education. 5G will simplify usage of augmented and virtual reality (AR/ VR) to make lessons engaging, videos for faster learning, and digital feedback. Besides improving remote-learning opportunities, deployment of cutting-edge technology will render learning flexible, relieving pressure on teachers and encouraging self-learning among children.
  4. Manufacturing – 5G is essential for automation in factories, a requirement in the post-COVID–19 era. Manufacturers need to ensure seamless connectivity between people, processes and tools, and integration of physical and IT systems. Latest technologies in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and IoT need to be implemented. 5G, with enhanced capabilities, can help in automation and in operating automated factories.
  5. Automobiles – Technologies such as vehicle connectivity, advanced driver-assisted systems (ADAS) and infotainment systems are ushering a major transformation in the automobile industry. 5G can process and transmit data within milliseconds, a much-needed feature, especially in autonomous vehicles. Hence, the sooner 5G is implemented, the faster autonomous vehicles will become a reality.

5G can help in improving other technologies. It is the bridge to connect transformational technologies and a strong platform to build an IoT network with smart cars, factories, houses and healthcare facilities. Hence, 5G is the need of the hour for every country as it is a technical upgrade necessary for technological transformation.

As the lockdowns are being lifted in a few countries, activities to rollout 5G are resuming (for example, Finland concluded its second auction of 5G spectrum in June 2020). Rollout of airwaves and commercialization is a long process taking 2 to 5 years. Therefore, the delay caused by COVID-19 may well be over the short term only and would most likely be offset in the long term.