Will COVID-19 Slowdown the Progress of 5G?

The 3G is the first mobile broadband makes it possible for us to surf internet on a smart phone after the 2G digital voice which can only provide wireless telephone calls and short message service (SMS). The 4G mobile internet delivered speed that enabled video streaming and caused a boom in the app development industry, which very much rely on the 4G speed. In retrospect, the 3G and LTE/4G networks have given us the so called modern connected world. By now they had laid the foundation for good connectivity around the globe. It should have been enough, or is it? Now, it is time to move on with the next generation of cellular network, namely, the 5G network.


This cutting edge network tech is capable of supporting speed up to 100x faster than the current LTE/4G with latency of just a few milliseconds. Besides, it will be able to connect many more devices per cell site. This allow them to stream content almost instantaneously, access websites, apps, and other cellular technologies with zero delay, and retrieve complex data at top speed. If you were to download full-length HD movies, it would be completed in just a mere few seconds. Massive MIMO is accepted as one of the core technologies to provide the cellular network with this stringent requirement. Figure below shows the key statistics for the 5G adoption in 2025 according to GSMA Mobile which predicts that there will be 1.8 billion 5G connections by 2025 leading by Developed Asia and the US [1].

What is a coronavirus and how it could cause 5G deployments?

However, can the statistics be trusted now? All the data analysis and projection of 5G adoption so far were done through the lens of a stable global economy. But, as we all know, the world had since faced perhaps one of the greater pandemic of the decade, in the form of the novel COVID-19 virus.

COVID-19, a strain from the family of coronaviruses are actually a common human and animal viruses. They were first discovered in domestic poultry in the 1930s. In animals, coronaviruses cause a range of respiratory, gastrointestinal, liver, and neurological diseases.

However, COVID-19, the name given by the World Health Organization (WHO) on February 11, 2020  for the disease is caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV2 [2]. Novel means its a totally new strain which has no vaccines or cure discovered to counter it. The virus started in Wuhan, China in late 2019 and had since spread worldwide. COVID-19 is an acronym that stands for COronaVIrus Disease of 2019. The current outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was first reported in Wuhan, China, at the end of year 2019. Scientists think that it was transferred to humans from animals in a meat market in that China province, though scientists are racing to find the exact animal carrier [3].

Today, many countries are forced to issue national lockdown due of the virus. The impact to the economy of the world should not be underestimated. As of today, the lockdown control has changes the lifestyle and practices of nearly everything including the way people do grocery shopping and work.

This restriction to do most of our daily errands from home means that the reliance on broadband service worldwide is going to spike. This is evident by seeing multiple groups adapting by using video communication tools in order to stay connected remotely for work and social interactions alike. One evidence is by seeing the sudden increase in Zoom Video communications stock price corresponding to the lockdowns starting in many countries.

Zoom stock price increasing since February 2020, when Covid-19 first started gaining international attention

With the increase in demand to stay connected remotely through the internet, it’s potentially possible that we would see companies respond to this by building more capacity in local homes and areas. In some places, especially cities, 5G might be an effective short-range backhaul. If companies knew that people were mostly working from home, they might be more willing to begin deployments at a cost effective scale to make it affordable to the general public [4].

Would it means that 5G will deploy faster?

Now that the virus has become a global pandemic and most of the countries which are affected are in a state of lockdown, including China in which are two of the top telco providers and base station manufacturers, Huawei and ZTE, this will completely affect the whole supply chain which also includes the material or equipment for setting up the 5G systems. The stalling of the world economy and the restriction means that the supply chain flow will also slowdown.

For example, in China, early 2020, people who went home for their Chinese New Year are not allowed to come back to work. As a consequence, no factory is in operation and no one is there to build the daily product including the electronic component like the printed circuit board (PCB). Many companies which ordered from China needed to find local companies to do the same and of course higher price to pay. Maybe they need to cancel that order and make a new order. Countries which used to rely heavily on China needs to find alternatives. As we are all aware, much of the equipment (both major and smaller components) and 5G phone come from China.

For example, Apple phones are manufactured in China and shipped back to the USA. You may ask, well, they can find other country like the Europe or other companies like Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia. Today, Nokia and Ericsson are the top providers of telecommunications networking gear in North America and are No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the world. But what if these companies also faced with the same challenge? Therefore, without a doubt, with this lockdown situation, the supply chain problems as well as worker availability issues will significantly delay 5G. The prediction is that the delay maybe at least a couple of years.

The Current Challenge

From economic point of view, hundreds of billions of dollars must be invested to deploy 5G. Due to its increased complexity, 5G networks will require more sites than existing 4G networks. In every generation of cellular technology starting from 1G to 4G, both radio and fiber infrastructure networks have been the most expensive to set up and maintain, and the 5G will be so too. This means that the government has to support the mobile operators in allocating and lowering the price of spectrum available and the Telco manufacturers must find the technology which can help to lower the cost of equipment and BTS.

Moreover, the time it takes to launch 5G products into the market also depends on the readiness and availability of chipset, devices and network equipment makers for a 5G-ready ecosystem. Currently the 5G standard, modes of operating and the spectrum are still in discussion. In terms of the spectrum, as of now the US and many countries in Asia will use the C-band for the 5G. However, this band is owned by the satellite company operating fixed satellite services (FSS). Therefore, before going into the 5G, the mitigation issue in interference must be addressed first. There are many case studies in this where filter is the optimum solution to solve this interference issue. This filter needs to have a very stringent specifications and must be installed at all the FSS satellite receivers.

All these challenges are further amplified and stalled with the current COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic that caused the whole world economy to slowdown is directly affecting the speed on how these challenges are addressed. The supply chain has been obstructed and difficult due to the unprecedented measures taken by numerous countries to contain the virus. Take the production sector, for example, it will be very hard to recover or produce things on time due to the delayed return of labor forces, lack of personnel mobility, and traffic restrictions imposed by every country. We can deduce that for the progress in 5G deployment will depends very much on how fast the world economy recover after the COVID-19 outbreak.

So, with this unresolved interference issue, the costly amount to setup the infrastructure and now with the economic recession that’s coming with the slowdown in the supply chain due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the 5G challenge is more real than before. As of now, 5G will most probably be available for special business cases only. These cases would be to ensure that technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) and Cloud Computing can run smoothly. For the general public? Perhaps it may take up to at least 5 to 10 years for 5G to become fully commercialized.


[1] https://www.gsma.com/mobileeconomy/

[2] https://www.goodrx.com/blog/what-does-covid-19-mean-who-named-it/