5G in the U.S.: where are deployments and what can we expect next?

The U.S. remains the world’s leading mobile market and the figurehead from which the world’s other markets take their cues. Growth in the U.S. mobile subscriber base remains strong, with a penetration rate of 127%, and 5G is now being deployed by U.S. providers. According to the GSMA, almost half of North American mobile connections will be running on new 5G networks by 2025, fueled by operators spending on new networks.

The main players in the U.S. have commenced 5G network deployments and are at varying stages of progress: certain cities are already live, and while many expected 2020 to be the year 5G went nationwide, nobody could have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruption it brought. 5G comes in a range of flavors based on frequencies that have different characteristics: lower frequencies are better suited to delivering coverage over wide areas, since they travel further; higher frequencies have a shorter range and are better suited to providing fixed broadband services.

By June 2020, Verizon had fixed 5G Home (an alternative broadband) in Houston, Sacramento, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit and mobile 5G available in certain areas of 35 cities.

Its great rival AT&T is currently offering two flavors of 5G: one is 5G+ and operates in the mmWave spectrum, offering multigigabit speeds to users, and is available in 35 cities including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, West Hollywood, and others on the East Coast. Its other offering is a low band 5G network that can reach far-flung, rural locations. This is available in 190 areas throughout the country.

Further to the two big providers, there are other 5G offerings: T-Mobile/Sprint has 5G service in around 5,000 cities and towns, while Starry is offering fixed 5G in Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, DC. There are other more localized 5G services in Iowa, Wisconsin and Mississippi. Throughout the country, operators are under pressure to keep networks running at ever-increasing speeds and capacities to support new use cases and the current unprecedented circumstances.

What else is in play?

While operators have deployed services and are seeking to ramp them up, there is more to the situation than a simple rollout and marketing journey. There is a political angle to 5G that previous mobile network rollouts did not have to deal with: the U.S. government is accelerating its efforts to break with Chinese mobile company Huawei regarding 5G networks, the plan being to encourage U.S. telcos to use U.S.-made equipment over Huawei’s. It has complicated matters.

There has also been a major “fake news” issue to manage. There were health scares around 3G and 4G, with fears of radiation sickness to manage, but nothing on the scale of what has emerged around 5G. A conspiracy theory has proposed that 5G technology can suppress the immune system and make people more vulnerable to COVID-19, or even that it caused the COVID-19 virus itself, leading some people to set fire to 5G cell towers in several U.S. states and in other countries. The Department for Homeland Security was forced to issue alerts to telecom providers and law enforcement agencies about potential attacks on cell towers and engineers by 5G/COVID-19 conspiracy theorists.

There is the security factor, too: the very nature of 5G invites more cyberattacks, since it enables vastly more vectors that malicious actors can attack. For instance, 5G means more Internet of Things (IoT) connected objects than ever, plus vertical use cases like connected cars and healthcare, both of which bring industry-specific security requirements. The potential for increased numbers of botnets bringing distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and potentially paralyzing networks is bigger. Research has found that 94% of telco executives expect security concerns to increase significantly in 5G networks. All these factors make it more complicated for enterprises to make strategic plans around 5G.

The COVID-19 disruption

On top of these challenges to 5G deployments, the COVID-19 emergency arrived to disrupt everything and prompt a period of sustained uncertainty. Observers immediately forecast delays and holdups to 5G rollouts, as operators prioritized projects that would improve resilience in existing networks and support more people working from home. Throughout the U.S., there have been reports of local government approvals for 5G installations slowing down, as many millions of workers remain working from home and government attention continues to be focused elsewhere.

That said, 5G rollouts in the U.S. do remain relatively on track, according to some business leaders: Qualcomm President Christiano Amon admitted there had been “minor delays” in 5G deployments in some regions, but that overall “in the U.S. some carriers are actually ahead of scheduling the build-out, taking advantage of probably less traffic.” Verizon, too, said it is still largely on track with its 5G deployments, despite the interruptions created by COVID-19.

Supporting home workers

The COVID-19 pandemic may have potentially – and accidentally – identified 5G’s killer app: remote working. With millions of U.S. employees working from home, potentially long-term, video calling has exploded in use. Microsoft Teams saw 200 million meeting participants in a single day at the end of April, while Zoom noted 300 million meeting participants earlier in the month. A massive overall increase in unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) tools by home workers, plus a huge rise in video streaming by other household members on lockdown, has meant a gigantic increase in the amount of data and bandwidth U.S. households now routinely require.

Fast, reliable Internet is now an essential requirement, but in the U.S., it is still, even now often powered by basic home broadband connections. 5G has the potential to be a key enabler of wireless home broadband and provide a viable, reliable alternative that supports large-scale homeworking.

The Silicon Valley angle

Silicon Valley is watching 5G develop with interest: a couple of years ago, Facebook quietly acquired a 5G startup called Inovi and used it to build a small 5G network in San Jose and on their campus to test the viability of 5G and evaluate how soon it might become cost effective for mass deployment. Facebook has also engaged with over 450 telecom stakeholders in a partnership called the Telecom Infra Project, designed around launching 5G to more people around the globe faster.

Orange Silicon Valley (OSV) has been hosting and evaluating private wireless networks, targeting enterprise and IoT use cases such as smart cities. OSV has been looking specifically at spectrum-sharing issues, self-organizing networks (SON) and network slicing, plus overall network performance and usability. Furthermore, OSV has been reviewing the potential for private wireless networks, which could offer large campuses a secure and low-latency alternative to Wi-Fi.

Future potential

Use cases exist and more will emerge, and it seems clear that 5G will grow as demand for bandwidth and mobile applications continues. The GSMA estimates that 5G will account for 20% of global connections by 2025, with take-up particularly strong in North America and Europe, while Informa reports that 5G could be responsible for 22.3 million jobs and $13.2 trillion of global economic output by 2035.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.