With profitable business models and killer applications starting to emerge, 5G is expected to be one of the largest and fastest-growing markets. By the end of 2020, 125 operators in 52 countries/territories have launched commercial 5G services, and 5G subscriptions are likely to be over 200 million globally. However, the unexpected Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down the rollout of the 5G network globally. Also, the uncertainty of global economics and the ongoing China–United USA trade dispute might delay the adaption of 5G technology.
4G is growing in importance for the air passenger experience, with a recent example being the global launch of an air-to-ground 4G solution by Thales UK, Nokia and SkyFive, which is expected to deliver an inflight connectivity experience comparable to using a 4G mobile phone service on the ground, with speeds of up to 100Mbps. So what’s next for 5G?
5G infrastructure and deployment
The Covid-19 pandemic is the black swan to disrupt the rollout of 5G. Although the pandemic has had little adverse impact on telecoms so far, the resulting global economic crisis is likely to reduce the telecoms’ investment in 5G infrastructure and harm the willingness of customers to adapt to 5G devices and applications. The deployment of sub-6GHz 5G base stations might be 20% lower than the expectation, and the rollout of 5G mobile networks will be delayed by 9-18 months in many countries.
However, the deployment of 5G in China has been accelerated, with backup from the Chinese government. The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) put 5G network construction into the government strategy to reduce the influence of Covid-19 on economics. More than 600,000 5G base stations were built in China by October 2020.
Meanwhile, whether to ban Huawei, the largest vendor for 5G infrastructure, from the national 5G network is another continuous debate for many countries. The UK government banned the installation of new Huawei 5G equipment from September 2021 and ordered the complete removal of Huawei kits from the entire 5G network by 2027.
5G has been featured in many flagship smartphones, including brands from Huawei, Samsung, Apple and more. By November 2020, Samsung had the largest market share of 5G smartphones. Due to the pressure from the US government, Huawei sold off Honor to a Chinese company in November 2020 in order to free the brand from the USA’s sanctions.
In 2020, Apple finally entered the competition by integrating 5G into all iPhone12 modules. The entry of Apple into the 5G competition is likely to boost the investment from telecoms and encourage faster adoption of new materials and technologies to tackle the remaining challenges. Meanwhile, a large amount of low-cost 5G mobiles are available to the market. As a result, the market share of 5G handsets started to surge in 2020. Note that most of the 5G phones can only support sub-6GHz 5G.
5G thermal management
Recent years have seen an increasing application of vapour chambers within smartphones in order to improve heat spread. However, their future is far from set, with several high-end models still using graphite heat spreaders for their reduced complexity, cost and weight. In the new Note20 smartphone, Samsung has used a graphite heat spreader; Apple’s first 5G phones all use graphite heat spreaders and have not adopted vapour chambers.
Several new thermal materials for 5G applications were released in 2020. Some highlights include: DOW introduced the DOWSIL TC-3065 Thermal Gel with thermal conductivity of 6.5 W/mK; Henkel announced a portfolio of TIMs for 5G infrastructures; and W.L. Gore’s Thermal Insulation material for smartphones can reduce hot spots on the device surface and is compatible with the new mmWave 5G antenna.