With profitable business models and killer applications starting to emerge, 5G is expected to be one of the largest and fastest-growing future markets, says IDTechEx.

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 on-going China-US trade war might delay the adaption of 5G technology.

In recent research, IDTechEx has focused on the technology challenges and innovations in 5G, especially for thermal management and low-loss materials. Some of its findings include:

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 telcos’ investment in 5G infrastructure and harm the willingness of customers to adapt to 5G devices and applications. The deployment of sub-6GHz 5G base station might be 20% lower than the expectation, and the rollout of 5G mobile networks will be delayed by nine to 18 months in many countries.

However, the 5G deployment in China has been accelerated with back up 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 have been 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 kit from the entire 5G network by 2027.

5G smartphones

5G has been featured in many flagship phones, including brands from Huawei, Samsung, and more. Until 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 US sanctions.

In 2020, Apple finally entered the competition by integrating 5G into all iPhone12 modules. The entrance 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 starts 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 to improve heat spreading. 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 or a copper vapor chamber; 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 also announced their portfolio of TIMs for 5G infrastructure; 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.