CES 2021 brings 5G into sharper focus

January 21st, 2021 | Emily Groch

Two years ago, and well before it began materializing in any meaningful way, 5G was the hot topic of CES 2019. Fast forward two years to CES 2021 and 5G still dominated the show. By now, 5G networks are available in multiple markets, including nationwide in the US, and 5G-capable smartphones proliferate. Although still focused more on the hypothetical than the actual, the 5G discussion at CES 2021 evolved to focus on new partnerships with tangible results, helpful ways of thinking about 5G, and new 5G-compatible devices.

5G necessitates collaboration

Verizon took CES 2021’s marquee spot—the opening keynote—making it immediately clear that 5G would be a prominent theme of the show. Verizon Chairman and CEO Hans Vestberg gave a presentation not unlike the one he gave in 2019, focused on the many possibilities of 5G and his company’s partnerships that will bring those possibilities to life. The difference was that this year the audience was treated to some actual use cases resulting from these collaborations. For example, in partnership with UPS, Verizon and its drone subsidiary Skyward used 5G-connected drones to deliver packages in Florida last year. Another example was the “Super Stadium” experience Verizon launched in partnership with the NFL to enhance the experience for fans with real-time stats, AR features, and more. Other Verizon 5G partnerships highlighted during Vestberg’s session included The Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for immersive virtual learning, and Live Nation for 5G-enabled venues and virtual concerts.

The partnership focus persisted in 5G conversations throughout the show. On a panel about connected cities, speakers from Verizon, Qualcomm and Boingo discussed their collaborations with each other, as well as cities, businesses, and other connectivity providers. Listening to their stories of the successes and challenges of building smart cities, the common driver of achievement was a successful collaboration between multiple parties. Verizon Vice President of Network Partnerships Lauren Love-Wright shared success stories such as a new community in Florida where Verizon worked with the developer, the city, and utilities to deploy tech to enable a connected community to meet the needs of the intended residents. Qualcomm Director of Product Management Ashok Tipirneni noted that smart cities will have multiple types of connectivity, and collaboration will be required for these to work together, seamlessly.

While consumers learn about 5G mostly from the carriers, it’s clear that its implementation into real-life use cases requires a series of team efforts with many businesses, and in some cases government agencies, coming together to turn the possibilities into reality. As these exciting collaborations bring new innovations to life, it will be important for these businesses and agencies to share the responsibility of spreading awareness of 5G’s capabilities and to educate would-be customers or constituents.

Better-on-5G vs. only-on-5G

During another session, Samsung Vice President of Mobile Product Management Drew Blackard offered a clear way of thinking about 5G when he grouped its capabilities into two buckets: “better-on-5G” and “only-on-5G” experiences. Better-on-5G refers to the experiences already available on 4G that will be improved by 5G. One example Blackard provided was full HD video chat, which may be choppy or slow on 4G, but will hum along on 5G.

Consumers who own 5G smartphones and use 5G networks today are mostly experiencing the “better on 5G” experiences. These can make life more convenient, but they are not the “killer apps” that we are all awaiting to carry 5G forward.

Only-on-5G experiences tend to be the splashy ones we hear about when carriers are building hype, such as remote surgeries; unmanned drones; or in-stadium experiences. It’s the only-on-5G experiences that will really show us what 5G is made of. As carriers continue to educate consumers about 5G, they might consider using these two buckets or similar frameworks to help individuals and businesses think about 5G.

Mid-range phone options growing

A range of 5G devices were on (virtual) display at this year’s CES. In addition to 5G-connected laptops, hotspots and some exciting concept phones (like TCL’s rollable phones), CES 2021 showcased several mid-range 5G phones. For example, the Motorola One 5G Ace starts at $399, while the TCL 20 5G is expected to come in at a similarly competitive price point.

Budget-friendly 5G smartphones will be important in 2021, considering that COVID-19 has plunged so many consumers into financial instability, with high levels of un- and underemployment, paired with uncertainty about the “next normal.” Practically priced 5G phones paired with affordable 5G service, such as that offered by prepaid providers or on some postpaid family plans, may help to bolster 5G adoption this year. Expensive 5G phones, such as those offered by Apple and Samsung (which launched its Galaxy S21 series at a separate event the week of CES 2021), may be less appealing this year as those in high-income households continue to work from home, utilizing WiFi for their data needs, rather than cellular service.

Ultimately, CES 2021 provided a few glimpses of a 5G future, but we’re still waiting to see a lot more of what 5G can really do.

Emily Groch

Emily Groch

Emily Groch is Comperemedia’s Director of Insights, Telecommunications, providing omni-channel marketing analysis and competitive insights to telecom providers.