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Why the coronavirus pandemic has made 5G more essential than ever

September 7, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC
5G illustration
COVID-19 has spurred companies like Motorola and Qualcomm to consider how to bring 5G technology to more people, write Cristiano Amon and Sergio Buniac.
Chen Sanhu—VCG via Getty Images)

While 2020 has introduced challenges no one expected, recent advances in emerging tech have enabled companies worldwide to quickly react and adapt in uncharted territory. Whether it involves switching to virtual meetings or managing companies remotely, we’ve seen a distinct change in the way we work, and simultaneously in consumer behavior.

Increased streaming and online shopping and less in-person socializing have led to consumers’ growing need for a reliable and quick way to virtually communicate on both a personal and professional level. In the U.S., it’s estimated that more than half of the current workforce is working remotely—and three in five U.S. workers who have been doing their jobs from home during the pandemic would prefer to continue doing so. 

This shift in how consumers are working, socializing, and consuming products and services is forcing manufacturers to rethink how to solve one of today’s biggest consumer pain points: staying connected.

Prior to 2020, companies across the technology industry had been heavily investing in, researching, and developing the next generation of connectivity: 5G. This new technology will provide consumers with several benefits, including connection speeds that are as fast as fiber, more reliable connections, smoother streaming, and video calling with less buffering. (The first 5G-capable phone was introduced by Motorola a little more than a year ago, using the first commercial 5G chipsets from Qualcomm Technologies. Both companies stand to benefit from increased use of 5G products.)

But that’s the future. Where are we today?

Tech companies and industry players are taking part in the expansion of 5G on a global scale. A forecast from Ericsson suggests that 5G subscription uptake will be significantly faster than that of LTE (4G) in 2009, when the technology was first going mainstream. With 25% to 30% of consumers expected to continue to work remotely for multiple days a week by the end of 2021, the question becomes: How are we helping more consumers stay connected?

Mobile manufacturers can address current obstacles to 5G adoption by creating products that span various price points and enable users to connect to so-called sub-6 or mmWave 5G networks—which means they are connected to whatever flavor of 5G technology is available in their respective markets. While early 5G smartphones were offered with constricted spectrum compatibility and premium pricing, those launched in 2020 are reaching a wider consumer base. 

However, broadened 5G devices and networks alone won’t solve the current consumer need to stay connected. The technology industry must develop other 5G applications that will impact the everyday consumer.

One way to accomplish that is by opening the doors to telemedicine at a global scale. By virtually assisting remote consultations and surgeries, 5G will help health providers offer remote access to the care that patients need, as well as alleviate some of the associated costs. The 5G network will also equip patients with monitoring tools that measure vital signs, medication adherence, and more, giving doctors a more accurate, real-time look at a patient’s information—and providing for a more personalized care experience.  

5G can also help the consumer shopping experience become increasingly virtual. 5G will enable better virtual and augmented reality experiences. For example, shoppers will be able to try on clothing and choose furniture without ever touching the products or leaving their house.

Just as it took time for 4G to enable GPS tracking and real-time streaming, the full swath of 5G’s benefits is yet to be realized. While a lot of work still needs to be done, we’re confident that by the end of 2020, we’ll see 5G reaching more people in more places. Once it does, the opportunities that come from 5G will be global in scale.

Cristiano Amon is president of Qualcomm.

Sergio Buniac is president of Motorola.

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