Despite the negative impact on network upgrade activities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, mobile network operators, or MNOs, remain overwhelmingly committed to 5G infrastructure buildouts and service deployments. According to Kagan's 2020 global 5G survey of 73 mobile operators, 38% of respondents indicated that they already offer 5G service. An additional 36% are planning to offer 5G services during 2021, with 16% indicating plans to do so in 2022.
Survey data indicates that initial deployments and service coverage for consumer-centric 5G will be concentrated in high-density areas to generate faster returns on investment for operators. Broader 5G service availability matching current 4G LTE footprints, including in some rural areas, will take years to build out and activate.
While 63% of operators said COVID-19 prompted them to slow their 5G builds, more than one third (36%) said the pandemic had either little to no effect on their 5G plans, or actually accelerated 5G network upgrades. Based on data Kagan has seen in both its semi-annual 5G Tracker reports, and its quarterly small cell market share reports for 2020, the impact of COVID-19 has slowed operator implementations of 5G equipment but has not come close to stopping these network upgrades outright. In fact, in the second quarter of 2020, small cell unit shipments grew 31% year over year.
5G coverage has a long way to go in terms of both current footprint and planned expansion. For 2020, in response to the question, "What percentage of your subscriber base is covered by 5G wireless technology today?" the average across all 73 respondents was just 7%. The surveyed operators also responded that by the end of 2021, they expect 17% of their subscribers to have access to 5G, and by the end of 2023, 5G services will be available to 31% of their subscribers. This again reflects the challenges operators face in building out 5G networks, most notably the increased density of 5G radios needed to provide service.
5G spurs worldwide small cell market growth by 31% YOY despite COVID-19
5G Survey: Despite COVID-19 delays, operator roadmaps still lead to 5G