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Road to 5G largely on track despite COVID-19 concerns

The coronavirus should not significantly hinder U.S. operators' next-generation 5G deployment strategies this year and could even spur quicker adoption of future use cases for the mobile technology, analysts said.

As the novel coronavirus requires more people to stay at home, top U.S. wireless carriers — T-Mobile US Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and Sprint Corp. have been busy accommodating the surge in network traffic by requesting additional bandwidth from the government to meet customer demands for more data. While the companies' response efforts could temporarily halt their 5G rollout plans, analysts expect the impact to be short-lived. They also note the way the virus is changing the business landscape could speed up adoption of future 5G applications that were largely considered a few years off, including augmented and virtual reality, telemedicine and industrial automation.

Three of the top four U.S. wireless carriers have either launched or vowed to launch nationwide 5G service this year. When fully implemented, 5G promises to offer download speeds several times faster than current LTE wireless networks and significantly lower latency times, or the amount of time between data leaving a source and arriving at its desired destination.

While operators have been speeding along with their rollouts, Andrew Bartels, a principal analyst at Forrester Research who studies tech market trends, including cloud and smart computing technologies, noted that companies have struggled with explaining the utility of 5G to consumers.

"5G itself, to be honest, is still struggling with really putting together a solid value proposition, as well as struggling with, well, what actually is 5G?" Bartels said. In part, this is because a key selling point for the technology is its ability to enable a new era of the internet of things a network of interconnected electronics, vehicles and home appliances that interact and exchange data. Many of these applications have been seen as at least a few years away, as they rely on 5G specifications that have yet to be finalized.

But as the coronavirus continues dictating massive shifts in workplaces policies, including more remote work and cost cutting, these 5G applications will become much more appealing, said Brian Partridge, research vice president at S&P Global Market Intelligence's 451 Research unit.

Partridge cited augmented and virtual reality, which create simulated environments and incorporate digital elements into everyday scenes, as well as automation tools that increase efficiency and limit reliance on human workers, as showing particular business promise.

"If I was a business leader in some of these apps for mixed reality, I would be positioning the social benefits of using these applications at a time where we can't physically be together virtual travel, virtual social interactions, exploring distance learning," Partridge said.

"When we dust ourselves off after getting through [coronavirus], you've got to believe the leaders [in factories and warehouses] are going to say, 'What pain could I have avoided if I had more automation running through my factory?' 5G is a part of that story."

In terms of rollouts, T-Mobile in December 2019 began offering what it described as a nationwide 5G service that covers over 200 million U.S. users in more than 5,000 cities and towns. The wireless provider expects to expand that coverage following the closing of its merger with Sprint, which has so far focused on city-by-city rollouts of 5G.

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AT&T in March said it will deliver 5G nationwide in the second quarter, and Verizon said it plans to do the same this year.

Jeff Moore, principal at Wave7 Research, a research firm that analyzes competition in the telecom industry, said he expects the carriers will be able to pick up on 5G deployment within the next month or so as more people return to work.

"My guess is that once things get back to normal, things will get back to very normal, and this will seem like sort of a bad memory," Moore said in an interview.

AT&T and T-Mobile are relying on their low-band spectrum for their nationwide rollouts, which can travel long distances and penetrate walls but generally has limited bandwidth. Meanwhile, Verizon had focused its 5G efforts on high-frequency or millimeter-wave spectrum, which can carry massive amounts of data at high speeds but has trouble traveling long distances and penetrating certain surfaces due to its shorter wavelengths.

Sprint, which now offers 5G services in parts of nine major cities, utilizes its 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum that provides broader coverage than high-band spectrum and faster speeds than low band.

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