5G phones and mobile networks are real — Samsung and Qualcomm showed us two prototype designs for future 5G phones.
Qualcomm is hosting its Snapdragon Technology Summit this week in Maui, Hawaii, where the company has gathered partners to talk up their plans for 5G in 2019. Among the companies the mobile chip giant invited: Samsung, Verizon and AT&T.
Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon on Tuesday showed off a 5G prototype device that can access “live” 5G networks running at the Grand Wailea Hotel, the location of conference. It’s powered by Verizon and AT&T. The 350 journalists in attendance weren’t given an opportunity to try out the devices, but we did get a chance to see them. Curated demos showed off the network’s capabilities.
5G “will lay the foundation for smartphones, later cars and virtually every electronic device that will be connected,” Amon said during a keynote. “That first step (smartphones) is getting to us in the first half of 2019.”
5G, the next generation of cellular technology, is expected to significantly boost the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. It can run between 10 and 100 times faster than your typical cellular connection today, and even quicker than anything you can get with a physical fiber-optic cable going into your house. It will also speed up how fast a device will connect to the network with speeds as quick as a millisecond to start your download or upload.
The overall speed gains mean that phones will be better equipped to handle complex computing tasks in a fraction of the time they currently take. This could make advanced photography skills, artificial intelligence actions and augmented reality apps possible; today’s handsets would take far too long to process those tasks. 5G technology will also allow driverless cars and buses to talk to each other, and to communicate with smart street lights and other vehicles on the road.
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While 5G technology will put more capable devices in your hands, it also presents an opportunity for device makers and carriers to profit. 5G requires specialized hardware, so it won’t just “work” in any city, or with your current phone. The service providers with the largest 5G networks, and handset makers with the most feature-packed 5G phones, hope to snatch customers as rival carriers and brands struggle to catch up. 5G service plans and 5G-ready phones could also sell for a premium alongside “regular” LTE plans and devices.
On Monday, Samsung and Verizon announced their first 5G “phone,” a proof of concept device revealed ahead of the summit. Samsung plans to launch a 5G phone for bothand in early 2019. And earlier this year, Motorola and Verizon teamed up on a 5G-ready module that snaps on to a $400 device, the Moto Z3. Neither will work until Verizon officially lights up its first US 5G networks, but when it does, these handsets are waiting.
Although 5G technology will replace today’s 4G LTE networks, the transition will be gradual. Carriers will roll out their first 5G networks city by city, while also making existing 4G LTE networks faster. Expect larger cities to get 5G first, and rural markets to see the least support early on.
The rocky road to 5G in mid-to-late 2019
Transitioning to the 5G network comes with its own set of challenges. First, the operators need to prepare their networks to handle 5G. This fifth-generation data pipeline uses a different part of the wireless spectrum than 4G. It relies on high-frequency millimeter wave (mmWave) to deliver very high speeds at short range and sub-6 GHz spectrum to deliver data more broadly, and into buildings.
As with 4G and 3G before it, carriers buy the rights to use spectrum at auctions put on by the FCC. That might mean that some carriers will have more spectrum than the other, and that can affect the overall network speed in different parts of the country.
Second, device makers need to make sure their handsets work seamlessly with 5G. Phones have to use a specialized modem and dedicated processor chip that supports 5G. Smartphone brands like Samsung, Apple and LG already test every single device on every major carrier they sell through. 5G certification is yet another lengthy, and expensive, process.
But Amon and wireless partners like Verizon on Tuesday said they’re confident about launching phones in early 2019.
“We’re full speed ahead on 5G mobile service,” Nicki Palmer, chief network engineering officer and head of wireless networks at Verizon, said Tuesday at the Qualcomm event. Verizon plans to set up 5G incubators in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Washington, DC, to target specific uses for the fast networks, she said.
And Amon noted that it isn’t just US carriers or certain wireless companies in other countries that will launch 5G next year. Instead, all major markets across the globe are aiming to introduce 5G as quickly as they can.
“5G is so important than the entire industry is moving at the same pace for 2019 launches,” Amon said. “The fact that we have a mature mobile environment [means]… the development system is going to move faster than ever before.”
This story originally posted Dec. 4 at 12:13pm PT and updated at 4:51pm PT with more details.
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