People around the world want even more from wireless networks than usual thanks to the coronavirus outbreak. 5G service is still limited, but the need for fast connections is clearer than ever.

Chris Pearson, president of 5G Americas, said that the new rules of work and daily life show how critical mobile wireless technology is for first responders, workers, and consumers to maintain social distancing while staying connected.

“5G will play a vital role in sustaining the economy and our health,” he said.

Here is a look at which sectors could use a fast and reliable connection right now as well as an update on the state of the expansion.

5G can boost healthcare, education, and telecommuting

Connecting healthcare providers and patients safely and securely is an immediate benefit of 5G service. Pearson said telemedicine not only improves productivity and healthcare, but also protects both patients and healthcare workers from infection.

“In some parts of the world, the combination of 5G, drone, and AI are already being used to detect body temperatures of potential COVID-19 cases in public areas,” he said.

SEE: 5G: What it means for IoT (free PDF)

Bill Flatley, senior service delivery manager at OST, a business and IT consulting company, said that 5G connectivity will make it easier to send digital images and videos so that doctors can provide real-time patient care, especially now, when radiologists are working from home at increasing rates. Flatley also said that 5G will make it more feasible to send patients home with devices and support real-time monitoring.

“IoT will go from just a catchphrase to a standard of care, keeping patients safe at home while keeping clinics and hospitals safe from patients,” he said.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

5G connectivity also can also help educators and students now relying on remote classrooms and live streaming video.

“The high capacity of 5G networks will allow for very high-quality, real-time video and allow large homework video files to be sent from the teacher to the student,” Pearson said.

Bill Menezes, a Gartner analyst specializing in sourcing, procurement and vendor management said that 5G connectivity also will help people working at home.

“The millimeter wave spectrum Verizon Wireless is deploying is only available in limited areas, but provides even greater throughput comparable to faster (close to 1 Gbps) cable modem or fiber to the home link,” he said.

Most 5G currently deployed using low- and mid-band spectrum (T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint) may provide marginally greater throughput than 4G LTE or comparable throughput to cable modem.

5G expansion and the coronavirus

Fitch Ratings does not think COVID-19 will have an impact on the continuing rollout of 5G connectivity from a financial standpoint.

MKM Partners suggest that COVID-19 could accelerate society’s move to broadband and digitization by up to a decade.

Pearson said that 5G rollouts are continuing at a solid pace throughout the US.
“It’s not entirely clear whether the coronavirus will slow down 5G growth or accelerate it, although social distancing has shown to increase data use tremendously,” he said.

Menezes said deployment of new 5G small cells or new macro towers has probably stalled for now due to logistical constraints related to difficulties in getting local regulatory approvals for siting and construction permits needed for new infrastructure.

“Existing, previously approved and permitted construction likely has been less affected as long as the carriers have determined they want to keep workers out in the field despite the infection risks,” he said.

Apostolis Sotiriou, assistant vice president for sales in North American markets at Raycap, said that many carriers are still in negotiations with cities and utility companies to secure installation agreements.

“Right now the main challenge is for carriers to convince cities to let them deploy more and more sites in downtown areas,” Sotiriou said.

5G connectivity requires much higher density than current networks, to the extent that an area covered by one installation needs anywhere from eight-20 more sites to cover the same area in 5G service.

Raycap has developed a product line that can camouflage 4G and 5G radios inside a light pole or behind a screen. Sotiriou said that the new imperative for real-time services will push 5G expansion in the near term.

“Having real-time information means that we need bandwidth and for that we need more sites,” he said. “We’re going to see a lot of new 5G sites within the next months.”

Pearson said a few components of the 5G expansion have slowed down:

  • GSMA Intelligence has reduced their forecast for 2020 by more than 25%: Expecting around 150 million 5G connections globally by the end of the year.
  • The US Federal Communications Commission has delayed the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum auction by a month to July 2020.
  • There could be an impact on the supply chain surrounding 5G New Radios manufactured in China, which could slow rollouts globally.
  • The standards work for 3GPP Release 16 & 17 is also being delayed by around three months, due to the inability to meet face-to-face.

However, the major carriers have reiterated commitments to continue with the nationwide 5G buildout through 2020 in the US.

Image: Olivier Le Moal, Getty Images/iStockphoto