5G keeps rolling out on Earth and space in turbulent 2020, promising faster mobile for people stuck at home

An artist's illustration of a 5G mobile network over North America.
An artist's illustration of a 5G mobile network over North America. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The rollout of 5G mobile internet is happening in an environment we couldn't anticipate even a year ago. The novel coronavirus pandemic has millions of people trying to work from home to enable physical distancing, using internet services from their apartments and houses rather than from the office.

As you watch a video stream lag yet again on your phone during an important business call, you may be asking yourself when 5G — which can deliver data rates of 10 to 100 times faster than current 4G networks — will finally get to your city. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are building out networks in many major metro areas across the United States, so check their coverage maps carefully. To access 5G, you will likely need to buy a new device, as older ones are not designed for the new protocol. 

The hope is that these new networks, whenever they are available, will fuel faster and more frequent internet access for applications such as telemedicine — that means remote medicine done through the internet, a technology that was implemented on the International Space Station a few months ago after an unidentified astronaut developed a blood clot. Another application for 5G could be the internet of things, which connects home appliances and corporate goods such as shipments to networks.

Related: 5G from space won't solve all slow internet problems, analysts warn

"5G has seen significant deployment efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere. In the U.S., we have seen near-nationwide deployment from some carriers leveraging low- and mid-band spectrum," Jack Fritz, principal of technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte Consulting in Chicago, told Space.com.

"Some carriers have done this through dedicated [5G] spectrum, while others are leveraging dynamic spectrum sharing, which allows spectrum to 'switch' between 4G and 5G," Fritz said. "Consumers have started to see some benefits even with their older-generation phones, as the networks have continued to improve."

A recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction of wireless spectrum space, known as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, awarded slices of 5G spectrum to Verizon, Wetterhorn, Spectrum, XF and Cox Communications, the FCC said in an August release. These smaller wireless players must give way to spectrum requests from the larger incumbents (such as AT&T) if the big companies want the spectrum space, under the Priority Access Licenses the smaller companies received. But there are still merits to the PAL system, Fritz said.

"[PAL] sets the stage for test beds around private networks for enterprises and other organizations," he said. "If successful, some form of a tiered licensing structure could become a new standard applied by the FCC to future spectrum availability."

Most Americans should have access to 5G connectivity some time in 2021, and in many cases can choose between incumbents, cable operators and new entrants for their service, Fritz added. Of course, this access depends on the affordability of buying new phones to take advantage of the faster network.

Naturally, 5G is also developing in space. The London-based communications company OneWeb (then in bankruptcy proceedings) was purchased by a consortium of investors in July in large part due to its promise to deliver 5G from orbit. In June, Spain's Sateliot — a satellite telecommunications operator — announced it plans to launch a nanosatellite constellation in 2022 devoted to 5G. 

But not all satellite constellations are jumping on board the trend. For example, SpaceX's Starlink constellation doesn't appear to offer 5G services for now, and company CEO Elon Musk said in recent media reports that the company will instead seek to deliver broadband where 5G service is not available.

While space offers the promise of giving 5G to rural areas, in most cases these lesser-populated areas will follow later than high-density urban zones, Will Townsend, a senior analyst for market research firm Moors Insight & Strategy, told Space.com. Depending on the rural area, however, you may see 5G relatively soon, he added. 

"The U.S. federal government is setting aside funding for rural underserved areas, and AgTech [agricultural technology] should benefit in the form of improving crop yields and better land management," Townsend said. Sectors that will benefit in rural and urban areas will include autonomous driving, transportation, logistics, manufacturing and health care, he added.

If nothing else, this shift in internet use is providing even more fuel for space and terrestrial companies alike to make ongoing investments in 5G. Some of the pioneering networks now active include those by T-Mobile in the United States, SK Telecom in South Korea and Telefonica in Europe.

Some operators, such as Japan's Rakuten, have reported delays in rolling out 5G due to COVID-19. In the United Kingdom, Nokia recently won a contract with British Telecom to provide 5G equipment, a few months after the country announced a ban in buying Chinese-based Huawei's 5G equipment due to security concerns.

"It is hard not to wonder what the global pandemic response may have looked like if 5G and the often-touted use cases were deployed a few years before all of this started," Fritz said. "There are areas where the need for 5G and advanced connectivity is accelerating. Some examples include 'cameralytics' [video surveillance] to help worker safety and social distancing in manufacturing or other settings, and remote access and remote monitoring of equipment to limit the number of people required on site."

"5G deployment, like so many other things in our lives, has been impacted by the pandemic," he added. "Spectrum auctions in the U.S. and Europe, as an example, have been delayed or cancelled and some phone releases have also been delayed. Despite some of these headwinds, it is worth noting that carriers in the U.S. have continued or increased their network buildout during this time, so they will be even better positioned to capitalize on devices and spectrum frequencies as they become available."

Related: 5G is not linked to the coronavirus pandemic in any way. Here's the science.

Mike Katz, T-Mobile's executive vice-president for business, told Small Business Trends in late September that he expects 5G will consistently deliver mobile speeds of 300 to 400 megabits per second, which is about 10 times faster than the average mobile network in the United States. At peak, 5G could have a blazing-fast speed of more than a gigabit per second, he added. Latency — the tendency for networks to "lag" with video or other high-speed applications when they are busy — will also improve, he said.

"You hear all these buzzy things about virtual reality and augmented reality, but those things become a real possibility with a high capacity, high bandwidth, low latency network," Katz said. "You can have experiences in a virtual or augmented environment that feel natural, because they don't carry the latency. I think there's a lot of ingredients for big transformation."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace