After years of hype about gigabit speeds that will let you download full-length movies in mere seconds, 5G is finally becoming a reality. Already this year, we've gotten a taste of 5G as Verizon launched a home broadband service using the next-generation wireless technology and AT&T completed a live test on a 5G network using a consumer device. And 2019 will see the launch of actual 5G wireless networks along with phones that will run on them.
Credit: David Becker/Getty"I don't have to ask you anymore to imagine 5G," Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm's president, told attendees during that company's tech summit this month. "It's here. It's all around us."
The fifth generation of connectivity, pithily called 5G, will be ready for prime time next year. Software is being tested, hardware is in the works, and carriers are readying their plans to flip the switch on their 5G network in the first half of 2019.
"The adoption of 5G will even faster than what we saw on 4G, which was already fairly fast.," said Ignacio Contreras, Qualcomm's director of marketing for 5G.
The new networking standard is not just about faster smartphones. Higher speeds and lower latency will also make new experiences possible in augmented and virtual reality, connected cars and the smart home — any realm where machines need to talk to each other constantly and without lag.
In the brave new 5G world, you will definitely need to buy a new phone, but it won't be all about handsets.
"5G will be the post-smartphone era," said Robert J. Topol, Intel's general manager for 5G business and technology. "Phones are the first place to launch because [they're] such an anchor in our lives from a connectivity standpoint."
Here's what you can expect from 5G's rollout as 2018 gives way to 2019:
5 5G Fast Facts
- During its December tech summit, Qualcomm unveiled the details of Snapdragon 855, its next-generation CPU that includes the X50 5G modem and will be used in many of the 5G-ready smartphones coming in 2019.
- Both Verizon and AT&T have announced plans to build 5G phones with Samsung. (AT&T has actually announced plans for two phones.) Meanwhile, OnePlus says it will be one of the first phone makers to release a device using the 5G-ready Snapdragon 855 processor, and LG has plans to come out with a 5G phone of its own as a Sprint exclusive.
- Apple will reportedly wait until 2020 to release a 5G smartphone, preferring to wait until all the kinks have been worked out and 5G is more widely available.
Where 5G Is Now
The 3rd Generation Partnership Project, the standards body that writes the rules for wireless connectivity, agreed in late 2017 on the first specification for 5G. The Non-Standalone Specification of 5G New Radio standard covers 600 and 700 MHz bands and the 50 GHz millimeter-wave end of the spectrum. That agreement paved the way for hardware makers to start developing handsets with 5G modems inside. But the non-standalone specification applies to 5G developed with LTE as an anchor.
In June of this year, the standards body completed the rules for standalone 5G. Network operators are now fine-tuning their software using equipment that complies with the completed standard.
"[The standard] really sets [the stage] for interoperable systems and field trials with operators in 2018, and it starts the clock for being able to build standards-compliant devices heading toward the last half of 2018 and early 2019 launches,” said Qualcomm's Matt Branda, who oversees 5G marketing.
It's important to note that 5G devices have to play nice with existing LTE networks, because in areas where 5G coverage will be spotty or nonexistent, the new radios will be optimized for available LTE connections. That's why the non-standalone specification came down first.
Companies such as Qualcomm and Intel are working on 5G modems that will fit into phones, cars, smart-home devices and other device forms that have yet to take shape. Those radios are in the midst of testing to make sure they're interoperable with network operators and infrastructure companies.
"We've done dozens of trials already," Intel's Topol said. "Now as we get closer to the commercial silicon, that's where the OEM announcements [from hardware makers] will start to come in."
For its part, Qualcomm has said that 20 operators around the world will roll out 5G in 2019, including all major US carriers. Eighteen device makers have committed to using Qualcomm's 5G components in their devices.
That includes the freshly unveiled Snapdragon 855, which in addition to improvements to performance and power efficiency, also adds 5G connectivity in the form of the X50 5G modem, unveiled even earlier in 2018. Also included in the Snapdragon 855 processing platform is the the X24 LTE modem, which can deliver download speed of 2 Gbps on networks that support gigabit LTE. The idea behind the two modems is to allow 5G-capable of maintaining fast connections even when they have to fall back to current LTE networks.
How Wireless Carriers Are Preparing
The earliest 5G deployments have used fixed wireless, similar to the wireless broadband you use at home. In October, Verizon rolled out its Verizon Home 5G service in a handful of cities, including Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento. The company announced that its 5G mobility network will go live in early 2019, with a handset from Samsung expected to launch on that network in the first half of the year. At Qualcomm's December tech summit, Nicki Palmer, Verizon's chief network engineering officer, described the carrier's progress as "full speed ahead" on delivering 5G mobility.
AT&T is also on track to launch 5G wireless service in 12 cities — Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, San Antonio and Waco — by the end of the year, Gordon Mansfield, AT&T's vice president of RAN and device design, told us. In 2019, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose will see 5G service turned on.
AT&T is turning to a mobile hotspot, not a smartphone, as its first 5G-capable device, and its being built by Netgear. The company's Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot has all the same bands as the LTE version, only with 5G built on top of it. In October, AT&T completed the first 5G connection between the hotspot and a live millimeter-wave 5G network. Likewise, Verizon is turning to Inseego to build a 5G hotspot of its own. Both AT&T and Verizon had sample 5G networks set up at Qualcomm's recent tech summit in Hawaii, though they weren't delivering anything near true 5G speeds.
"There are network operators that will be very aggressive with their plans. There might not be a lot of devices ready but it's important that the networks be ready."
— Robert J. Topol, Intel
As for Sprint, it's eyeing an early 2019 rollout on millimeter wave spectrum, though the carrier is currently building out its network capacity and boosting LTE speeds with massive MIMO, or the use of multiple transmit and receive antennas at a base station to increase capacity. That will lay the groundwork for 5G deployment in 2019. Sprint will roll out 5G in nine markets, including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington DC, in the first half of 2019. LG is making the first 5G-ready smartphone to launch on Sprint's network in the first half of 2019.
T-Mobile is also aiming for a 2019 launch followed by nationwide 5G coverage in 2020 after winning an auction for 600 MHz spectrum in 2017. T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray says the company is already rolling out 5G-ready 600 MHz equipment, so that when 5G is ready to go, T-Mobile will only have to push out a software upgrade. At Mobile World Congress in February, Ray announced that T-Mobile is laying down 5G-ready equipment in 30 cities in 2018, starting first in New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas.
Next-generation wireless networks require more infrastructure, such as small cells placed both indoors and out that transmit millimeter waves, which travel short distances. That's why T-Mobile is focused on laying down equipment this year. Sprint's use of massive MIMO is another way to build out a next-gen network. Sprint announced at MWC that customers in Chicago, Dallas and LA will start to see faster speeds thanks to massive MIMO network rollout that began in April. Sprint subscribers in Atlanta, Houston and Washington D.C. should also soon see what Sprint calls "5G-like capabilities."
"There are network operators that will be very aggressive with their plans," Intel's Topol said. "There might not be a lot of devices ready but it's important that the networks be ready before the devices. Intel chipsets will start to be ready for handset manufacturers and others to go and build around."
What About Phones?
Now that chip makers and carriers are making their moves with an eye toward to 2019, phone manufacturers are getting their turn. And we're beginning to hear a little bit more about the phones we'll see in 2019.
"It's our intent to have an initial device by the end of the year. We'll continue to add to that device portfolio in  and beyond."
— Gordon Mansfield, AT&T
"5G will be a new device," AT&T's Mansfield said. "Your existing device does not have the radio in it that supports the 5G new radio capabilities. It's our intent to have an initial device by the end of the year. We'll continue to add to that device portfolio in  and beyond."
That means the phone you buy right now, even now that the 5G standard has been completed, won't be compatible with 5G networks. That's something to think about if you're planning to splurge on a pricey handset.
And if you plan to upgrade your iPhone soon, know that Apple reportedly plans to hold off on making a 5G-ready flagship until 2020. According to Bloomberg, the company is waiting for wireless carriers to work out all the kinks with their 5G rollouts in 2019 and for more customers to be able to take advantage of 5G before releasing a 5G-ready iPhone.
OnePlus says it will be one of the first phone makers to have a device running on Qualcomm's new 5G-capable Snapdragon 855. Verizon and AT&T plan to work with Samsung on 5G-capable phones, while Sprint and LG are doing the same. There's no time frame on when we expect to see any of these phones, but February's Mobile World Congress will give phone makers a global platform for making some news about their upcoming devices.
Expect to pay up for 5G connectivity. OnePlus CEO Pete Lau speculated that his company's 5G-ready phone could cost anywhere from $200 to $300 more than its current device, the $549 OnePlus 6T. And OnePlus has a reputation for keeping costs down on its phones.
There's one phone already out that's capable of delivering 5G speeds, but it needs some help to do so. The Moto Z3, announced over the summer, will work with an upcoming 5G Moto Mod that you snap onto the back of the phone. The accessory adds 5G connectivity, at least in areas where 5G networks are available. At a demo on Verizon's temporary 5G network in Hawaii, we saw the phone download a 1GB file in 17 seconds, which should be even faster once a commercial 5G network is up and running.
5G Beyond Phones
Being able to take advantage of truly unlimited data is a smartphone user's dream, but everyone I've talked to about 5G is more excited about the potential unlocked by next-generation wireless. From smart-home security to self-driving cars, all the internet-connected devices in your life will be able to talk to each other at lightning-fast speeds with reduced latency.
“5G is one of those heralds, along with artificial intelligence, of this coming data age,” said Steve Koenig, senior director of market research for the Consumer Technology Association. “Self-driving vehicles are emblematic of this data age, because with one single task, driving, you have massive amounts of data coming from the vehicle itself, [and] a variety of sensors are collecting a lot of information to model its environment as it moves. It’s pulling in data from other vehicles about road conditions down the lane. It could be weather information, but also connected infrastructure. There’s lots of data behind that task, which is why we need the capacity and lower latency.”
Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/GettyAnd 5G could finally make augmented- and virtual-reality headsets more palatable for mainstream users. This is notable because companies such as Apple are reportedly developing AR glasses to complement — or perhaps even replace — smartphones. 5G would make that possible.
Ericsson illustrated at February's Mobile World Congress how smart glasses could become faster and lighter with a 5G connection, because instead of being weighed down with components, the glasses could rely on external hardware for processing power.
I watched through the glasses as digital balls cascaded down physical shelves and onto the ground, marveling at how the virtual world was mapped on top of the physical one. But more importantly was how seamless the experience was, as the balls tumbled from the shelf to the floor.
Augmented reality glasses and virtual reality headsets haven’t yet cracked the mainstream, but tech companies are betting that these devices will eventually replace our smartphones. With 5G, that could actually happen.
This year, Verizon and Nokia tested the transmission of live interactive virtual reality and 4K video streaming over a 5G connection outdoors using Verizon's millimeter-wave spectrum and found that they were able to reach throughput speeds of 1.8 Gbps with a latency of about 1.5 millisecond. Basically, the latency is so small as to be unnoticeable, which will make VR a much more comfortable and engaging experience.
But don't get too excited. There's still a lot of work to be done in the meantime, including interoperability trials to make sure the radios play nicely with hardware and infrastructure build-out so 5G coverage isn't concentrated solely in high-density cities.
"I think a lot of the hype is where things are gonna be 10 years from now with 5G, not what it will be at launch," said Ron Marquardt, Sprint's vice president of technology development.
2018 saw a lot of progress with 5G. And despite 2019 looking like a big year for network launches, 2020 is when the fifth generation of wireless connectivity will really start to take off.
Credit: Tom's Guide
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