The next evolution of cellular wireless technology, called 5G, is already popping up in select markets around the U.S. and is expanding quickly throughout China. Over the next five years, about 40% of the world's population is predicted to have access to 5G networks, and the new opportunities opened up by that higher-bandwidth standard will help wireless carriers generate as much as an additional $619 billion in annual revenues by 2026.
5G networks will have data speeds about 20 times faster than the current 4G, and devices on those networks will have lower latency rates (which means they'll communicate with cellular towers faster). But 5G isn't just important for its speed improvements. The tech will also be a crucial building block in the expanding Internet of Things, and will help provide the necessary internet connectivity for autonomous vehicles as they arrive on the market in the coming years.
Verizon first introduced its version of 5G technology last year through its fixed wireless broadband service, called 5G Home. But this year Verizon will likely launch its first mobile 5G in select cities.
The telecom says that its capital expenditures for 2019 will be between $17 billion and $18 billion, and much of that is likely to go building out its 5G network. New networks require updated hardware, potentially new cellular data towers, and additional small cell equipment (which attaches to existing building and poles) installed in dense urban areas. Bringing 5G online throughout the U.S., for all carriers, could require 10 to 100 times more cell sites than its current 4G network, by some estimates.
Verizon made a smart move in 2017 when it bought Straight Path Wireless, as the acquisition gave the carrier some of the wireless spectrum it needed for its 5G network. But it will still take several years to bring it fully online. That's why its early moves right now are so crucial.
Check out the latest Verizon earnings call transcript.
The company is extremely bullish on 5G. Verizon Wireless President Ronan Dunne has said that, "By 2035, 5G will enable $12.3 trillion of global economic output and support 22 million jobs worldwide."
Given that Verizon has more subscribers than any other U.S. cellular carrier, investors should keep a close eye on its 5G moves. The company doesn't have to be the first one to the mobile 5G market -- AT&T is already in trouble for claims it made on that front -- it just has to take the same approach as it did with 4G, and do it better its competitors.
Qualcomm may seem like an odd choice for any list of "top stocks" right now, considering that its share price is down about 20% over the past year. Ongoing legal battles with Apple and other companies over its patent licensing fees have taken a toll on the chipmaker's patent licensing business -- the segment that provides most of its revenues. As a result, the market has devalued its shares. Additionally, it was recently revealed that Qualcomm had decided not to sell cellular modems to Apple for its latest iPhone models, which angered investors.
But despite all of that, 5G still offers a lot of potential upside for Qualcomm over the next few years. That's because it still makes some of the best modem chips for cellular devices.
The company recently announced its Snapdragon X55 5G modem, which is capable of handling 7 Gbps download speeds and 3 Gbps upload speeds. The chip will be commercially available toward the end of this year, and is a good indicator of just how far ahead Qualcomm is with its 5G chips than its rivals.
Qualcomm is already working with 20 cellular network providers to start rolling out 5G this year, and said on its recent earnings call that it expects to be "the 5G modem supplier of choice for the majority of the first wave of 5G devices."
Its focus on superior modem technology could put it back in the good graces of device makers, including Apple. And if the company can benefit from 5G's rise even half as well as it did with 3G and 4G, it could experience significant sales growth from the technology.
It's hard to talk about the rise of 5G without mentioning China Mobile. The wireless carrier has more than 900 million subscribers, making it the biggest telecom operator in the world -- and it has big plans for the technology.
The government in Beijing has already awarded 5G spectrum to China Mobile and the nation's other two wireless carriers. The company says that it expects to finish up its 5G tests this year, and roll the network out commercially next year; it will release a handful of 5G-capable smartphones on its network in the first half of this year.
But China Mobile's plans also include a new 5G smart highway that's currently being built in the country's Hubei Province. That highway will allow vehicles to connect to a 5G network, and will collect data for real-time traffic updates, as well as connect autonomous cars to the internet. China Mobile has reportedly already applied for permits to test the autonomous vehicles. The road's tech will also be used to enable a smart toll system that doesn't require any human workers.
That may all sound a bit like science fiction, but 5G will enable all sorts of new connectivity, and China is one of the leading countries for 5G tech.
China Mobile will have one of the largest 5G networks in the world in the next two years, and one of the most advanced Internet of Things road systems when its new 5G smart highway is complete. Investors will be hard-pressed to find another carrier that's making bigger waves with this new tech.
5G will be worth the wait
Even with the tests and projects that are underway, it's going to be some time before 5G networks are ubiquitous. Only a handful of devices capable of running on the new networks will hit the market this year, so 2020 is likely a more realistic target for when investors should expect it to begin taking off. However, the companies above have made early moves to position themselves for that future, and will likely stay at the forefront of this new technology. Investors will just need to be patient as the market grows.