New York (CNN Business)As 2020 kicked off, rolling out 5G was top of mind for telecom companies.
Then coronavirus hit.
Telecom companies had to figure out how to manage remote workforces, grapple with concerns about tech supply chain disruptions and fortify existing networks that suddenly became essential links to the outside world for people sheltering in place.
But industry players say coronavirus caused only a minor disruption for the rollout of 5G. In fact, many say the pandemic has highlighted the need for the kind of high-speed, high-bandwidth connections 5G promises.
5G is expected to enable technologies like automated factories and remote augmented reality training, the utility of which are even more apparent in an age of social distancing and working from home.
“We’ve seen the demand [for 5G] is higher than ever … I think there’s good support globally around driving greater 5G development and investment,” said Bob Everson, Cisco’s senior director for 5G architecture. Cisco (CSCO) is a major provider of equipment and technology for 5G networks.
Where do companies stand?
Most network operators acknowledged that coronavirus created some hurdles for the physical 5G buildout, at least early on.
Solving complex engineering problems and installing new cell sites, for example, are more challenging when workers must maintain social distancing and city permitting offices are closed.
“It has no doubt slowed some things down as people are figuring out business processes — operators are adapting to a time when people can’t be together and engineers that were out there doing it have to be in a different environment,” Everson said.
AT&T continues to “navigate some delays” as a result of coronavirus, a company spokesperson told CNN Business. (CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, is owned by AT&T).
Kyle Malady, Verizon’s Chief Technology Officer, said during a Twitter livestream earlier this week that the company “did lose a couple of weeks” in the deployment of its 5G mobile edge compute sites, a key piece of Verizon’s 5G strategy.
However, both companies said the delays have been minor.
“Our 5G deployment continues, and we expect nationwide 5G coverage this summer,” AT&T’s spokesperson said, referring to the company’s low-band network. The company also plans to continue expanding its 5G networks through 2020. AT&T said in November that nationwide 5G would be available to consumers and businesses in the first half of 2020.
Verizon last month pointed to several moves it says will accelerate its 5G deployment despite coronavirus-related disruptions. It announced the creation of a new virtual lab to experiment with potential 5G applications at a time when visiting a physical lab isn’t possible due to social distancing requirements. It also launched high-band 5G service in San Diego, its 35th high-band network market.
The San Diego deployment was an opportunity to learn how to manage building out 5G infrastructure in the midst of coronavirus, Verizon’s director of system performance Marta LaCroix said on Twitter last month.
“Our operations teams and our performance teams are finding new ways to test,” LaCroix said. “Where we previously would have had a couple of people working together, we’re finding creative ways to do that social distancing, to wear PPE, as we … make sure that we’re ready for launch.”
After T-Mobile announced its nationwide 5G network in December, the company said in its most recent earnings report that it expanded its network to 2,600 additional sites during the first four months of the year. T-Mobile also finalized its merger with Sprint in early April, a move it has long said will help it build out a better 5G network, faster.
“Our network build is continuing and on track,” T-Mobile said in a statement to CNN Business. “We’re still moving very quickly to combine the T-Mobile and Sprint networks, and continue building out 5G across the country.”
The 5G rollout was perhaps better positioned to weather the coronavirus disruption than past network updates would have been, thanks to improvements in network technology, Cisco’s Everson said.
Network operators are increasingly moving toward greater use of “software defined networks.” That means that, in some cases, when the network infrastructure needs to be updated, it can be done remotely through software, rather than requiring replacement of physical parts of the system.
“We’ve done some work with operators, where you can take a cell site build process that would normally take eight hours to multiple days, and through automation, the operator just goes out, hangs the radio and plugs it in, and it automatically brings itself up,” Everson said. “It makes it a 15-minute process. The more you can do that, the quicker we can roll out.”
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