By Emily Bary
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One anticipated development for Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile in 2021 is the growth of standalone 5G. This mode involves upgrades to infrastructure as wireless companies start using spectrum blocks solely for 5G rather than sharing spectrum between 4G and 5G.
The transition to standalone mode “sets the stage for new services for which 5G was designed,” Malladi said, as it will bring benefits in latency, or lag time.
On the consumer end, lower latency could help power applications like cloud gaming, according to O’Donnell.
O’Donnell likens radio spectrum to lanes of traffic. To build a 5G “super highway,” carriers can combine multiple chunks of frequencies together to get faster speeds, he said, something that has long been possible with 4G but is only now becoming possible with 5G. While low-band sub-6 spectrum may not be particularly powerful on its own, when combined with mid-band spectrum it can enable wider “highways” and better overall coverage.
So far, carriers have mainly relied on millimeter-wave spectrum and low-band sub-6 spectrum to build their networks, and both have their limitations. Millimeter-wave 5G offers faster speeds but is best suited for smaller, denser locations like stadiums because it doesn’t travel far past a cell tower. Low-band sub-6 5G has enabled the carriers to continue building out their “nationwide” networks, but it doesn’t offer the same speed advantages.
“It’s always been the case with 5G that to really make it work, operators need access to the right amount and right type of spectrum,” said Peter Jarich, the head of GSMA Intelligence, a part of the GSM Association wireless trade group. “The U.S. has been criticized for not doing so well in some of those spaces.”
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Though many of the early use cases for 5G have been more niche, like better video experience in stadiums, Verizon’s vice president of product innovation Sanyogita Shamsunder told MarketWatch that consumers will also come to see more mainstream benefits.
“The customer experience in general will be different for those who use a lot of bandwidth,” she said, arguing that video calling over cellular connections will become more mainstream. People will also “start seeing a differentiated experience” in congested areas, especially when moving from place to place, according to Shamsunder.
The carriers also have opportunities to monetize 5G on the enterprise side by selling businesses on the benefits of low latency. Companies are deploying private 5G networks on their campuses to better control robots and machines, and the goal for AT&T, Verizon, and others is to find new markets for 5G in areas like manufacturing, transportation, and retail, said Marisa Vivero, IBM Corp.’s /zigman2/quotes/203856914/composite IBM -0.36% vice president for strategy and offerings within the telecom space.
Business applications will be helpful for the carriers, according to Edward Jones analyst David Heger, since consumer upgrades to premium unlimited plans probably won’t be enough to fully pay back all of the carriers’ spectrum investments.