After years of hype about gigabit speeds that will let you download full-length movies in mere seconds, 5G is close to becoming a reality. Last year gave us 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.
This year will see the launch of actual 5G wireless networks along with phones that will run on them. Verizon will flip the switch on its mobile 5G network April 11, beginning in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis. Verizon’s first 5G smartphone will be the Moto Z3 — sort of. On March 14, the Z3’s 5G Moto Mod will be available to preorder. That add-on will enable 5G connectivity for the Z3. Verizon said its 5G service can be added to any unlimited plan and will cost an extra $10 a month.
Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G may be the first true 5G phone (i.e. not retrofitted) out of the gate, but other phone makers, including LG, Huawei and ZTE have announced 5G devices of their own.
Credit: David Becker/Getty
“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, at the company’s summit at the end of 2018.
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:
5 5G Fast Facts
- Verizon is launching its mobile 5G network on April 11 in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis. The first compatible phone will be the Moto Z3, which isn’t 5G-capable out of the box but can be retrofitted with 5G connectivity with a 5G Moto Mod available to preorder March 14.
- Samsung will release a 5G version of its S10 flagship on Verizon’s 5G network in the first half of the year. The device will sport a 6.7-inch display and six camera lenses, including two with depth-sensing time-of-flight sensors for improved augmented reality experiences. LG is releasing a 5G phone of its own, the LG V50 ThinQ 5G, and it will debut on Sprint’s network.
- Sprint just announce a May launch for its 5G network in a handful of cities, while Verizon talked up its 5G service at CES 2019. AT&T is taking heat took heat for its 5G Evolution logo, which looks a lot like 5G, with speeds closer to 4G. T-Mobile is eyeing the second half of the year for its 5G push.
- Phones with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 are starting to appear. That mobile system-on-chip can include the X50 5G modem, though phone makers will still have to use a separate LTE modem. A future Qualcomm modem, the X55, integrates both networks and will show up later in 2019. Qualcomm is eying a chip that integrates 5G for future designs, so that phones (and other devices) will be able to offer 5G connectivity right out of the box.
- 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 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,” Qualcomm’s Matt Branda, who oversees 5G marketing, told us last year.
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. Twenty device makers have committed to using Qualcomm’s 5G components in their devices.
That includes the 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. The newly announced X55 modem combines both LTE and 5G and will find its way into phones later in the year; Qualcomm says the X55 also extends 5G connectivity beyond phones to laptops, cars and other devices.
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 2019, with 30 cities receiving 5G service by year’s end. (Verizon hasn’t specified which ones.) Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G will launch on Verizon’s network in the first half of the year. (Verizon says it will offer the LG V50, too, though that phone’s coming to Sprint first.)
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. Meanwhile, during 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, and AT&T just announced that Chicago and Minneapolis will join the slate of cities getting 5G this year.
Don’t confuse these 5G plans with the 5GE logo that’s started to appear on AT&T customers’ phones. That logo 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.
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 this past December, 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. In January, Sprint said it completed a 5G data transmission on a commercial network.
Sprint just clarified its 5G plans at Mobile World Congress. The carrier plans to begin service in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City in May; Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington DC will follow in the first half of the year. The LG V50 5G will be the first 5G phone on Sprint, though the carrier will also get Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G when that phone’s exclusive window with Verizon closes.
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 the 2018 edition of 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. During this year’s show, Cnet published an interview with Ray that suggested the carrier was pushing back its 5G launch to the second half of 2019 due to lack of phones, which T-Mobile subsequently disputed. But it’s clear the bulk of T-Mobile’s 5G efforts are targeted for the latter half of the year.
What About Phones?
Now that chip makers and carriers are making their moves in a world where people will expect 5G, phone manufacturers are getting their turn. And we’re beginning to hear a little bit more about the phones we’ll see this year.
“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,” said Gordon Mansfield, a vice president at AT&T. “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.
Nevertheless, phone makers are hoping the arrival of 5G means that smartphone sales will pick up in 2019 after stalling in recent years. “I think this year could be the year of the upgrade in the smartphone industry because of 5G,” IP Park, CTO and president of LG Electronics, told us at CES 2019.
OnePlus says it will be one of the first phone makers to have a device running on Qualcomm’s new 5G-capable Snapdragon 855, though that phone apparently won’t make it to the U.S. The Galaxy S10 5G, after coming to Verizon first, will fan out to other carriers. And in addition to LG and its V50, Huawei and ZTE have also announced 5G phones, though it’s not clear if those are coming to U.S.
Expect to pay up for 5G connectivity. No one’s confirmed pricing yet, butOnePlus 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 last year’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.
Last 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.