2020 Preview: 5G devices go mainstream

Although 2019 saw initial 5G deployments from the four major U.S. carriers and early 5G devices hit the market, many expect 2020 to be the year when 5G handset adoption starts to really gain traction.

Major operators are gearing up for more widespread 5G rollouts, including AT&T and T-Mobile, with plans for nationwide coverage in 2020. One catalyst to 5G device adoption is the largely expected introduction of Apple’s first 5G iPhone, although the tech giant has not officially confirmed whether its next generation of models will support 5G.

A November report from Strategy Analytics forecasts Apple’s entry into 5G during the third quarter “will catapult the vendor into the lead in 5G smartphones,” surpassing current 5G handset-leader Samsung.

It’s also expected that by the first quarter of 2020, 5G smartphones capable of tapping both millimeter wave and sub-6 GHz spectrum bands will become available. This expectation was reiterated by Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon at a December event in Maui, where the chipset maker unveiled its Snapdragon 865 Mobile Platform, which supports mmWave and sub-6 GHz, in both TDD and FDD frequencies. Current 5G smartphones only support one or the other, with sub-6 GHz-capable devices becoming available within the last month in the U.S.  

GSA released a 5G device ecosystem report in mid-December that identified 199 announced 5G devices from 76 vendors, including 63 phones. A September forecast from IDC projected a subtle ramp in 5G smartphones next year as average selling prices decrease and a wide range of sub-6 GHz 5G smartphones enter the market, with 5G handsets reaching 8.9% of smartphones shipped in 2020.

Consumers also appear ready for 5G, according to Deloitte’s first U.S. Connectivity and Mobile Trends survey, which found the next-generation technology may drive device upgrades. According to Deloitte, 67% of consumers said that they would be more likely to buy a new smartphone once 5G-compatible handsets are available.

"As carriers roll out 5G in the United States, a significant number of consumers will adopt the service quickly — if it delivers on its promise of faster speeds and better coverage,” said Kevin Westcott, vice chairman of Deloitte, in a statement. “Major networks and studios will continue to launch their own streaming and other data-heavy entertainment services like online multiplayer games, augmented reality, and virtual reality, accelerating the race to attract and retain customers. Providers that can satisfy the 'connectivity plus content' equation first will likely be the most successful."

Dell’Oro Group’s Stefan Pongratz, meanwhile, predicts that 5G NR subscriptions will approach 200 million in 2020, based on early estimates that suggest the move from LTE to 5G New Radio is roughly two to three years faster than the migration from 3G to 4G from a RAN infrastructure and subscription adoption perspective.

“The end-user ecosystem is developing at a rapid pace with multiple chipsets, devices, and phones supporting both NSA and SA for the low-, mid-, and mmW- spectrum now commercially available,” wrote Pongratz. “While TDD has dominated mid-band and mmWave deployments to date, FDD-based 5G NR phones became a reality in 2H19 and will proliferate in 2020.