Mobile carriers, network suppliers, and analysts are warning that the rollout of 5G networks could be delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The warnings came as businesses reported their quarterly earnings, in which they outlined what effect the ongoing crisis could have on their bottom lines. The full impact of the pandemic won’t be known until the June numbers are in, but right now, the US 5G rollout appears to be in better shape than Europe, with China’s deployment seemingly right on track.
Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on 5G network rollouts aren’t new. After all, Huawei warned that 5G’s European rollout would “certainly be delayed” back in March, although it said the effect wouldn’t be as significant in the UK. We’ve also already seen 5G spectrum auctions delayed in a number of European countries including Portugal, Austria, Spain, France, and the Czech Republic. But as more businesses comment on the pandemic, its overall impact is starting to become clearer.
Businesses across the 5G spectrum are now warning of potential delays. Samsung, for example, said that “investments in 5G networks will be reduced or delayed domestically and internationally as more effects of COVID-19 unfold.” Meanwhile, Ericsson and Nokia, two of the three major network providers alongside Huawei, also warned of delays. “COVID-19 and actions taken by governments to slow down the spread are making our service delivery and supply harder due to lockdowns and travel restrictions in many countries,” Ericsson’s CEO Börje Ekholm said, while Nokia’s CEO Rajeev Suri told CNBC that there “could be some delays” in Europe.
The extent of the impact is likely to vary by region, however. While most companies agree that Europe’s 5G rollout is likely to face delays, other regions are being more aggressive. “We see a number of countries actually accelerating investment in 5G and 4G capacity in response to the pandemic,” said Ericsson’s Ekholm, before citing China as an example. Counterpoint Research has also reported that China’s 5G growth “remains as expected.”
The US 5G rollout schedule also seems more or less on track, for now. Qualcomm’s president Christiano Amon admitted that there had been “minor delays” in 5G deployments in some regions, but “in the United States, some carriers are actually ahead of scheduling the build-out, taking advantage of probably less traffic.” This optimism was echoed by Verizon, which said that it is still on track with its 5G rollout despite the challenges caused by the pandemic. AT&T warned that “logistical issues” outside of its control may reduce the company’s spending on 5G, but was unclear on the specific impact this may have on its rollout. T-Mobile is yet to report its quarterly earnings, but it recently announced that it’s taking the first steps to combine its 5G network with Sprint’s after officially completing the merger last month.
Ultimately, however, the full impact of the pandemic is still unknown. It’s unclear when European spectrum auctions may finally go ahead, or when governments may lift the restrictions that are making work to deploy physical infrastructure challenging. And amidst the economic uncertainty caused by the crisis and people sequestered at home, it’s no wonder nobody can fully commit to rollout schedules made before the crisis hit.