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At CES 2019, 5G rides one last wave of hype before reality kicks in

CES is all about big tech promises and buzzwords. So of course 5G is all over the place.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Amid the hoopla of CES 2019, next-generation 5G tech is once again the talk of Las Vegas.

But as with previous editions of the big electronics show, it's largely just that -- talk.

That's because, to date, only a few consumers have actually experienced a real 5G network -- AT&T launched the next-generation network in select cities last month, while Korean carrier KT also started up its 5G service, with an AI-powered robot as the first customer. Most carriers still don't have any 5G services up and running yet.

One exception is a D-Link router, able to pick up 5G signals and broadcast Wi-Fi in the home. But as for phones, they're likely to come in the next few months.

Speaking of phones: On Monday, Sprint announced that it expects to bring out a 5G smartphone from Samsung in the summer. The phone will be dual-mode, able to connect to both LTE and 5G networks. Sprint, which last year announced plans for a 5G phone from LG, also reiterated that it intends to have its 5G network running in nine cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Washington.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile last month announced that, working with Ericsson and Intel, it has completed what it described as the "world's first 5G call on 600 MHz" on a live commercial network. That connection entailed both a data call and a video call, while separately the company made a 5G video call with three users on three different bands (600 MHz, 28 MHz and 39 MHz).

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Though 5G may be relatively quiet from an announcement perspective at CES, there's surely a lot of backroom intrigue going on.  That would be companies quietly showing off some of their early products, and key players like Verizon and chip giants Qualcomm and Intel laying out their plans for the coming year and beyond.

"Behind the scenes -- that's when a lot of the 5G discussions will happen," Gartner analyst Mark Hung said.  

The tech that wowed us at CES 2018: Where are they now?

After years of promises and demonstrations, 2019 marks a turning point for 5G to go from hype to reality. The technology promises massive speed boosts -- think downloading a season of Game of Thrones onto your phone in minutes -- as well as the potential to connect more devices around us and spark new areas of development, like streaming augmented reality.

"It's no surprise that 5G will continue to dominate the conversations at CES," said Niklas Heuveldop, president of Ericsson North America.

The mobile industry has been toiling away at the less sexy aspects of 5G: swapping out equipment, adding new radios and testing how antennas pick up the new high-frequency radio airwaves. Over the next few months, the carriers will begin flipping the switch on these networks.

But until then, you can expect companies to squeeze a little bit more hype out of the 5G stone.

5G newsmakers

The biggest potential 5G newsmakers at the show: Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg and AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan.

While AT&T has launched its 5G service in limited markets, Verizon confirmed that its 5G mobile service will launch with a Moto Z3 Mod attachment with 5G, followed by a Samsung smartphone. Verizon also started up a $1 million fund to offer seed money for anyone with 5G applications.

Vestberg already claimed leadership in 5G thanks to the launch of Verizon's home broadband service in October. But the company used a proprietary version of the high-speed wireless technology, and some in the industry quibble with the 5G label. Verizon has said it will expand its home broadband deployment in 2019 once it switches to the industry standard.

verizon-ceo-nuevo-hans-vestberg

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg could have a lot to share about his company's plans for 5G. 

Verizon

Qualcomm, meanwhile, will be shouting from the rooftops about 5G, even if its announcements will likely be more car-related. The company just spent the earlier part of December talking about a new processor and the prospect of 5G smartphones -- partly to undermine rivals Intel and Apple.

"We are fortunate to play a central role with our partners in accelerating the commercialization of 5G and couldn't be more excited about what's in store for 5G in 2019," Pete Lancia, vice president of marketing for Qualcomm, said in an interview. "CES will serve as a great 5G kickoff for the year."

The lack of news is partly attributable to schedule, and the fact that CES happens a little too early in 2019.

"The problem with these big shows is that the tech cycles are not necessarily producing something big every year, and coming up with announcements just to be part of the news cycle is not easy," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies.  

Nonphone applications

Though you may not see many 5G smartphones on the show floor, expect to see announcements of applications taking advantage of the higher speeds. Hung said to expect more virtual reality and AR services announced at the show.

"Whether they are announcing or demoing new products, showing off prototypes or highlighting 5G experiences, I would expect 5G to be prominent throughout CES this year," Qualcomm's Lancia said.

qualcomm-5g

Durga Malladi, Qualcomm senior vice president of 4G and 5G, talks speed at a company event earlier this month. The 5G drumbeat will continue into CES. 

Shara Tibken/CNET

Qualcomm rival Intel will likely also talk about autonomous driving technology, given that Amnon Shashua, CEO of its Mobileye vision-based driving software unit, will be a keynote speaker. 

At least one automaker talked about 5G, even if that's much further down the line. Ford committed to making sure all of its cars in the US will be able to have cellular vehicle-to-vehicle communications capabilities in 2022 -- powered by 5G. The technology could let cars communicate with other vehicles, stop lights and other infrastructure.

"Billions of dollars already are being spent as the cellular industry builds 5G networks, so we think the timing is perfect to give our vehicles some of the natural skills we use every day to get around," Don Butler, executive director of Ford Connected Vehicle Platform and Product, said in a blog post.

With 5G on the cusp and the long development time frames for vehicles, the timing seemed right to discuss the technology.

"The car companies will be talking about 5G," Hung said. "Their design cycles are longer, so they'll talk about it now."

Looking to MWC

The rest of the mobile industry may be holding off until Mobile World Congress for its big 5G announcements. The wireless-centric trade show, held in Barcelona, takes place in late February.

"The timing for some segments, like phones and connected PCs, seems to align better with MWC," Milanesi said.

We saw a bit of a tease earlier this month at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Tech Summit, where Samsung committed to making a 5G smartphone for Verizon and AT&T, and OnePlus said it would launch its first 5G phone with UK carrier EE.

But experts warn that despite the hype, there'll be only a trickle of 5G smartphones this year.

"The 5G device market is actually years behind the reality of widespread adoption," said Ian Campbell, chief executive of OnScale, which provides computer-assisted engineering software for the development of gadgets. "For 5G mobile devices like smartphones, the challenge engineers face is miniaturizing and optimizing the performance of the radio frequency front end."

In other words, it's tricky stuff. And with 5G networks just now getting launched, expect a bumpy ride as engineers work out the kinks.

Many in the industry have been eagerly waiting for years for 5G to show up. What's another few months?

CNET's Shara Tibken contributed to this report.

The story was originally published Dec. 14, 2018.
Update Jan. 7, 2019, at 5 a.m. PT: Added information about developments at CES 2019.
Update Jan. 7 at 7:44 a.m. PT: Added Sprint's and T-Mobile's CES announcements.
Update Jan. 9 at 5:00 a.m. PT: Included additional info from CES.

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