How Carriers Are Trying to Sell Consumers on 5G

Surveys show people are largely reluctant to switch as enticing use cases remain elusive

Verizon’s 2021 Super Bowl commercial focused on gamers.Verizon

When the iPhone 12—Apple’s first device to offer 5G compatibility—hit markets last fall, it was heralded as a turning point for mainstream awareness of the next generation of wireless coverage. But the year since has seen little change in consumer enthusiasm for the new service, various polls and other data show. What’s more, this year, some reviews of the latest iPhone 13 mentioned 5G only to note its drain on battery life.

The slower-than-expected adoption speaks to 5G’s current state in limbo. While major carriers have rolled out some form of 5G to most of the U.S. at this point, the service still remains a long way from the 10 to 100 times faster speeds experts promised. Meanwhile, carriers are still in search of major consumer use cases compelling enough to entice people to switch to 5G.

“There is a lot more caution this year that reflects the fact that 5G is still not quite ready for primetime,” said Craig Moffett, founding partner and analyst at researcher MoffettNathanson. “It’s that the networks are still a work in progress, the service levels aren’t really all that differentiated from LTE and, more importantly, there are no obvious use cases for the consumer market.”

Around 67% of Americans said they were unlikely to switch to 5G in a survey in September from polling firm YouGov, while about 19% remained undecided. Another recent report from Ericsson’s ConsumerLab found that about 70% of 5G users were dissatisfied with the availability of innovative new services and apps.

In that environment, carriers are incentivizing customers with promotional 5G pricing and attempting to zero in on a few areas where they believe 5G could be more immediately transformative for consumers.

“Verizon 5G is going to change everything, but that only truly happens when there is an understanding of what the technology can accomplish, and it is physically in the hands of consumers,” said Verizon svp of marketing activation Kristin McHugh.

Converting gamers

One of these spaces is gaming, which exploded in popularity during Covid-19 quarantines. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have each partnered with various cloud gaming services, such as Microsoft’s Project xCloud, Google Stadia and Riot Games. Verizon even devoted its 2021 Super Bowl commercial to a lighthearted gaming theme in a departure from the company’s usual emotion-driven messaging.

“Since a millisecond can mean the difference between life and death to a gamer, gaming is one of the industries seeing the most immediate impact from the technology,” McHugh said.

It’s not clear there will be that much investment in [5G] if the use cases don’t materialize.

Craig Moffett, founding partner and analyst, MoffettNathanson

Much of the strategy for these companies is built around forming advantageous partnerships in the spaces that integrate 5G organically and give the carriers access to existing audiences of partner companies.

“Partnering with the right companies is critical to make sure that we are creating a truly unique experience for consumers and fans alike,” said Sabina Ahmed, associate vice president of sponsorships and experiential at AT&T. “We want to make sure we’re finding the right audiences that gave us a diverse group of people to reach, and then also bring a lot of unique content to the table.”

That strategy also extends to other promising use cases, such as augmented reality shopping experiences and a partnership with Bookful, which brings children’s books to life through AR.

Return of in-person events

The pandemic has made some 5G use cases, such as cloud gaming or AR, more attractive to consumers. But it also has hampered carriers’ experiments that require in-person live events.

One of the reasons 5G hasn’t yet reached super-fast speeds is the networks that AT&T, Verizon and, to a lesser extent, T-Mobile are building rely on short-range millimeter waves that work best in densely populated spaces. And any experiments involving crowded events have been largely off the table since the pandemic began. 

Now that live events like games and concerts are once again possible, AT&T and Verizon are planning a blitz of 5G activations in tightly packed spaces to show off what their networks can do. The two carriers have outfitted major music festivals and sports stadiums with 5G equipment during the pandemic, showing up with activations like AR stats displays, multiple camera angles and express wireless payments for merchandise and concessions.

Whether or not these use cases ultimately compel consumers to make the switch, however, will also be a chicken-and-egg situation, according to Moffett. “In order for 5G to really live up to the hype, there has to be a tremendous amount of investment in the network,” he said. “And it’s not clear there will be that much investment in the network if the use cases don’t materialize.”

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