Mobile companies just can’t stop talking about 5G. The next-generation technology is poised to connect devices like phones and driverless cars to wireless networks almost instantly, and download data 10-to-100 times faster than today’s 4G LTE. 5G means downloading entire TV seasons in minutes, and enabling cities full of driverless cars that talk to each other in real time.
It’s a beautiful vision. But the reality is that while 5G phones and networks are coming as soon as early 2019, it’ll be a long time before 5G can mature enough for us to reach that reality. Your carrier’s 5G service will roll out slowly, devices and service plans are sure to cost you, and it isn’t clear exactly how fast those speeds will run straight out the gate.
So while the 5G future is inevitably on its way — and coming fast — it could get off to a rickety start.
Yes, real 5G phones will arrive early next year
The race is on to be the first company with a 5G phone. Samsung, OnePlus and Motorola attended Qualcomm’s conference to talk up their plans to launch devices early next year. And Qualcomm provided a long list of other handset makers working on 5G — including Google, LG, Vivo and ZTE.
Samsung said it will have a phone for Verizon, AT&T and other networks in the first half of the year and at least one more later in 2019. And OnePlus’ upcoming 5G device for UK carrier EE will be the first smartphone in Europe to use the new Snapdragon 855 chipset. In August, Motorola revealed that in early 2019 it will release a 5G “Mod,” or module, that attaches to the back of the Moto Z3. The Mod will let it run on Verizon’s 5G network.
By the 2019 holidays, every Android company working with Qualcomm on a phone for the US market will launch a flagship that has 5G, Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon told Techhnews. “Every Android vendor is working on 5G right now,” he predicted.
One company that may not have 5G next year is Apple. The company previously relied on Qualcomm for the wireless chips for its devices, but it’s worked with Intel over the past couple of years because of a patent licensing battle with Qualcomm. Reports have said Apple won’t offer a 5G iPhone until 2020.
5G phone speeds will be fast, but maybe not as fast as you hope
Speeds of 10 to 100 times faster than today’s 4G LTE is a wide window. Although carriers swear that the results will be obvious the second you start using a 5G phone, don’t expect to get to 100 right away.
Coverage could be spotty as networks spark up in one city at a time. If you’re one of the early adopters, initial speeds might roar to life, but if people buy 5G phones faster than the carriers can build out the networks, your connection could slow as the networks swell to capacity.
Even over time, the theoretical speeds could outstrip real-world speeds depending on network conditions wherever you are.
Remember, too, that 5G isn’t just about phones. It’ll also connect millions, if not billions, of other devices, like traffic sensors, healthcare equipment, smart home appliances and hotspots. That could put a tremendous amount of demand for instantaneous access on a network.
Prepare to pay up for 5G phones
But a 5G phone is going to cost you. Handset makers and operators tend to get quiet when talking about pricing for 5G phones and service plans. But it’s all but certain they’ll use the new technology as an opportunity to boost prices.
During Qualcomm’s conference, partners like Verizon, AT&T and Samsung were cagey about what they’ll charge customers for 5G. None of them definitively said prices will go up, but there’s little doubt that they will.
“I don’t think you can think about it as we think about pricing today,” said Kevin Petersen, AT&T’s senior vice president of wireless product marketing. “That paradigm has to shift.”
Nicki Palmer, Verizon chief network engineering officer and head of wireless networks, told Techhnews in an interview that her company “believes customers will pay for utility and value. There will be that, no doubt, in 5G.”
But she added that the cost per gigabyte of data in 5G “is a fraction of 4G.” In other words, it costs Verizon less to deliver those big data buckets to users when they’re on 5G. While prices may go up, there could be more attractive unlimited data packages.
And Samsung’s SVP of mobile, Justin Denison, said the belief is that 5G’s expanded capabilities will make phones worth more than they already are. “If you generate enough value [in the phone], then consumers will be ready to pay,” he said, referring to the notion that 5G’s expanded capabilities will make phones more prized than they already are.
In the case of OnePlus, its 5G phone could be $200 to $300 higher than this year’s flagship OnePlus 6T, CEO Pete Lau said in an interview with Techhnews. That’s a whopping 36 percent to 55 percent increase.
“The new technology and the amount of R&D and new development that goes into 5G will inevitably mean the cost of the device is, to a significant degree, more expensive,” Lau said.
4G phones will largely outnumber 5G phones in 2019
Even though phones with 5G speeds will eventually replace 4G phones, expect 4G-only devices to dominate in 2019. Heavy 5G marketing will make it seem like 5G phones are taking the lead, said Anshel Sag, Moor Insights Strategy, but experts say that won’t be the case.
Handset makers won’t want to pour 5G phones into a market as the networks are still finding their feet. As with any new technology, a smaller segment of early adopters will rush to 5G, while the majority of people will wait to buy new phones.
For example, AT&T expects its 5G portfolio to be a “low single digit” number, said Kevin Petersen, the carrier’s SVP of Device and Network Experiences.
“5G phones will be largely restricted to high end Android devices next year,” said Vincent Thielke, a research analyst at Canalys. “To put this into perspective, based on our latest smartphone forecasts for the US market, we expect $800+ smartphones (includes both Android and iOS) to make up 31 percent of 2019 shipments (and we do not expect Apple to ship 5G iPhones next year).”
“It took two to three years for 4G/LTE phones to become 10-15 percent of the market. Most consumers aren’t on the bleeding edge so they rarely jump in early,” said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. “Critical mass for 5G likely comes in the 2022-to-2023 time frame.”
Your phone will only work with one carrier…really
If you buy a phone through your carrier, you may already expect it to work with your service provider alone. But unlike today’s 4G phones, buying an unlocked phone in 2019 won’t be possible.
That’s because “5G” is a catch-all for a technology that’s really broken into two different parts. Millimeter wave (mmWave) is the swatch of wireless spectrum that carriers will use to deliver those nosebleed speeds largely in cities, because it tends to be shorter range. Meanwhile, sub-6 GHz is a chunk of spectrum that’s relatively slower, but better suited to penetrate buildings because it’s longer range.
The problem is, every carrier has its own plan for building out either mmWave, sub-6 or a combination of the two. If a phone doesn’t match the precise network bands, it won’t work on the carrier. The result is that phonemakers will have to make a single phone for a single carrier. For example, One Plus; 5G device will include a sub-6 antenna tuned to EE’s UK network, but it wouldn’t work on Verizon even if you tried; the carrier is focusing on mmWave.
This one-at-a-time approach is another reason why 5G phones won’t blanket the globe in 2019. Unlike an unlocked Galaxy S9 or Moto G6 that can work with any carrier, brands can’t create a single phone to work with all carriers, so they won’t be able to build a high volume of 5G phones at first.
5G network rollout will be slow, but steady
It seems like we’ve been hearing about 5G for years (and actually, we have). But the first networks will definitely light up in the coming months. AT&T says it’s on track for turning on its first 5G network by the end of 2018 (though it’s already December, which doesn’t give it much more time).
Verizon, T-Mobile and others haven’t yet said when they’ll will turn on 5G, beyond early 2019. But everyone is aiming to get the service ready as soon as possible.
“Like any new technology, it’s our intent to make this exciting enough and at the right value proposition where customers will want the latest device with the best network and the 5G ultrawide-band network we’re providing,” Verizon’s Palmer said. “We’re deploying as fast as we can.”
For all carriers, 5G service will first start in cities and then eventually roll out to smaller towns and rural areas.
“People in rural areas could of course still upgrade to the latest 5G Android flagships before service is available to them if they really wanted a certain device,” said Bajarin, “But the incentive to upgrade would be less than for urban dwellers.”
5G will first be deployed as a way to deal with crowding on 4G networks, Palmer said. “We typically see the biggest demand in cities, but that doesn’t mean there are other pockets where it doesn’t make sense,” she said.
At the same time, 4G networks will keep getting updated, too. Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 855 for high-end smartphones doesn’t actually come standard with 5G technology. Instead, it has integrated its X24 LTE modem that’s capable of download speeds up to 2 Gbps, double the current fastest speed.
Read now: Galaxy S10 could take portrait videos and double the photos using new Snapdragon 855 chip
Read next: Qualcomm presses Apple, Intel with 5G phone and connected PC push