Last year, a typical quote about 5G might have sounded like the declaration that Meredith Attwell Baker, president of the wireless trade group CTIA, made at a conference in September: “5G will make every industry and every part of our lives better.”
And now? The rhetoric is a bit more subdued. “5G is going to be an incremental upgrade,” T-Mobile (TMUS) chief technical officer Neville Ray said at a press conference Tuesday night at Mobile World Congress 2018.
Yes, 5G will eventually bring much faster downloads and much lower latency — but it’s not going to replace 4G the way 4G wiped 3G off the map. And it won’t come to smartphones until after it reaches other, larger devices.
Not just vaporware
Signs of 5G’s progress from marketing visions and bulky testing gear to deployment schedules and early versions of consumer hardware were all over the floor here at MWC.
Qualcomm (QCOM), for instance, showed off prototypes of the X50 5G chipset it will make for 5G smartphones that will ship next year. A model running a network-bandwidth test showed download speeds hovering at around 4 gigabits per second, about 100 times faster than 4G LTE.
And all four national U.S. carriers are advertising 5G availability timetables.
Verizon (VZ) looks to be first. In November, the carrier announced it will launch “fixed wireless” residential 5G in Sacramento, Calif., in the second half of this year, with two to four other cities following. In an interview Tuesday, chief network engineering officer Nicola Palmer reiterated that schedule and said a mobile 5G service “will quickly follow.”
AT&T (T) released its own 5G timeline last week, touting plans to deliver “mobile 5G” to a dozen cities (with only Georgia, Dallas and Waco, Tex., named) by the end of 2018. What that press release didn’t spell out: This access will initially be confined to mobile hotspots, because no 5G smartphones will ship until 2019.
Sprint (S) said Tuesday that it will launch mobile 5G service “in the first half of 2019,” while customers in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington will get “5G-like” service this year as it upgrades its network to prepare for 5G.
Later Tuesday, T-Mobile announced that it will build 5G networks in 30 cities, with smartphone service due next year in Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and Las Vegas.
“5G is happening fast — even faster than we or anyone else expected,” Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri summed up at a press conference Sunday.
Different flavors of 5G
Beyond the residential, hotspot and smartphone 5G services we’ll see, it’s also important to remember that 5G will come over three main sets of frequencies with their own trade-offs.
The fastest 5G, like what that Qualcomm chipset showed off, will come via millimeter-wave frequencies at 24 GHz and above — far higher than today’s LTE bands. The tradeoff there: They won’t cover as much distance. It’s similar to how a 5-GHz Wi-Fi signal won’t reach as far as across your house as a 2.4-GHz network.
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