Then coronavirus hit.
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.
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).
However, both companies said the delays have been minor.
“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.”
“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.”