After years of hype about gigabit speeds that will let you download full-length movies in mere seconds, 5G is finally becoming a reality. Last year, we got a taste of 5G as Verizon launched a home broadband service using the next-generation wireless technology and AT&T brought 5G service to a dozen cities. And this year will see the launch of actual 5G wireless networks along with phones that will run on them.
The fifth generation of connectivity, pithily called 5G, will be ready for prime time this 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.Advertisement
“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:
5G Fast Facts – 5G The Future
- Verizon demoed its 5G service at CES 2019, while AT&T took heat for its 5GE logo (which looks a lot like 5G, with speeds closer to 4G), which the company is trying to defend.
- AT&T flipped the switch in December on its 5G mobile network, but there are no phones that can take advantage of the ultra-fast speeds. Instead, AT&T is offering select businesses and individuals a 5G mobile hotspot, Netgear’s Nighthawk, and free data for up to 90 days. Data will cost $70 a month for 15GB thereafter.
- Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855, introduced in December, includes the X50 5G modem and will be used in many of the 5G-ready smartphones coming this year. Both Verizon and AT&T have announced plans to build 5G phones with Samsung. 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 – 5G The Future
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 2018, 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 2018, 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 2018 tech summit, Nicki Palmer, Verizon’s chief network engineering officer, described the carrier’s progress as “full speed ahead” on delivering 5G mobility. At Verizon’s CES 2019 keynote in January, CEO Hans Vestberg put on a demo that showed download speeds a brisk 900 Mbps, which are good, though not the gigabit speeds we’re hoping for from 5G.
AT&T flipped the switch on 5G wireless service in 12 cities — Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, San Antonio and Waco — in Dec. 2019. In 2019, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose will see 5G service turned on.
But while a 5GE logo has started to appear on AT&T customers’ phones, that doesn’t mean they have 5G service. Instead, it translates to “5G Evolution,” AT&T’s expanded service with advanced LTE technologies, such as 4X4 MIMO, which doesn’t hit the speeds we expect from 5G (or even match Verizon’s current 4G service). AT&T is defending its decision: “We’ve been talking about 5G Evolution for a while now. We were pretty public about what we were doing and what we were deploying,” Igal Elbaz, senior vice president for wireless technology at AT&T, told us at CES.
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.”