There are so many promises about how faster 5G data will transform our lives, it sometimes feels mythical. Though lightning-fast download speeds are slowly coming to more carriers and phones, the prospects of self-driving cars talking to each other, remote surgery and 5G replacing your home Wi-Fi feel like the stuff of a still-distant future. But at last, we're finally starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Qualcomm, which makes the 5G chips and modems that every 5G phone in the US will rely on, shared a road map (scroll down to see the slides) that spells out when we might start seeing 5G improvements beyond just fast download speeds. Qualcomm isn't the only major 5G player, of course -- Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson are all leaders, too -- but Qualcomm's investments in 5G research and development mean that it has a strong hand in getting the next wave of 5G benefits off the ground. So, its timeline is a good place to start.
Here are five next-gen milestones that could actually affect you.
Qualcomm has said it before: all premium phones will support 5G next year. It's a confident statement that both predicts and reflects the trend we're seeing with phones such as the Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, LG V50, OnePlus 7 Pro 5G and others. But there's a little nuance here, too.
The pattern so far points to a pricier 5G version of every mainstream phone, for example, as we see with the Galaxy S10 Plus (which is 4G) and Galaxy S10 5G. 4G-only options are still valuable during the 5G transition because they come with a lower price tag. And phone-makers like Samsung want to flood the market with options at every price point, to capture a wide swath of buyers.
While we'll see more 5G phones next year, it's a likely bet that we'll continue to see what we're seeing now -- a 5G option for every major lineup. By 2021, when the networks are fully developed and prices start to come down, it's more likely that every premium phone model will support 5G from the get-go, without a 4G variant to provide a cheaper option.
That said, keep an eye out for one-off handsets for 5G service only, like foldable phones and "affordable 5G" devices aimed at specific markets, like the Galaxy A90 5G. Countries with more developed 5G networks, like Korea, may also see more 5G phones (without 4G variants) as the rate of adoption continues to climb.
Lenovo has already announced its intentions to make a 5G connected PC in early 2020, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see several other 5G-capable laptops surface at January's giant CES tech show, along with a carefully managed in-booth demo. We may not actually see those laptops hit the market for a while, but you'd better believe that some laptop-makers will lunge at the chance to be one of the first to bring 5G to computing -- just as you see happening right now with phones.
Our first experiences with 5G carriers have been choppy. That's not unexpected when you consider that 5G coverage and reliability are just starting to get off the ground. But once carriers like Verizon, Sprint/T-Mobile and AT&T begin to build out not just pockets of 5G but whole neighborhoods where you can get ultrafast connections in major cities, Qualcomm bets that the hunger for 5G laptops will follow.
The mobile-chip leader already powers always-connected 4G PCs such as the Asus NovaGo. Always-connected 5G PCs are simply the next step.
The main difference between 5G laptops and 5G phones is that there will be far fewer of them, even when 5G starts becoming much more stable and widespread. Phones are connected to the network by definition. You can live your whole life without needing a cellular data connection on your laptop, so long as you've got Wi-Fi or a hotspot.
5G hubs that work like Wi-Fi for your for home are already here. One example of fixed 5G is the HTC 5G Hub with Sprint, a device that plugs into your router to deliver home broadband in the form of the mmWave flavor of 5G, which has potentially higher peak speeds than sub-6, a different part of the wireless spectrum that carriers use to deliver 5G. The goal here is to compete with the dominant cable provider, a potential boon if you live in an area with few home broadband options.
Fixed 5G uses a different part of the network than your mobile phones (it isn't the same as hotspotting your phone to power a device), but it's designed to deliver the same dramatically high speeds, say between 500 megabits per second (Mbps) to over 1 gigabit per second (Gbps), with perhaps faster speeds down the road.
While you might be able to subscribe to home 5G if you live in the right place, it's still extremely early days. The devices and coverage areas are few and far between. Data plans are expensive, and if you blow past the data cap (which is easy to do when you're streaming movies, games and music), you'll drop down to much slower data speeds -- about 3Mbps if you use Verizon's 5G hotspot and 2G speeds with Sprint's HTC 5G Hub.
The 5G-connected car is one of the most compelling future scenarios. In one demo Qualcomm likes to show, a self-driving car outfitted with 5G sensors runs the same route as a car without 5G. The 5G-powered sensors take in data from other connected vehicles, understanding when a car door is opening at the curb, if there's an obstruction in the road and when pedestrians are finished crossing the street. At the end of the demo, the 5G-connected car is better informed of obstructions and arrives at the destination much faster.
But reality could be decades away. This capability (which Qualcomm calls 5G NR Cellular V2X) has a target of 2021 for its first commercial use. But before 5G in autonomous cars can become common, the self-driving vehicles have to flood the streets as well.
The first cars that can drive themselves without any driver input or oversight could emerge in the early 2020s, but they'll be rare and highly regulated. That is, there will likely be only a few of these vehicles approved to work in tightly constrained areas for really specific purposes, say within a 10-square-mile geofence. The safety of self-driving cars is a touchy subject, and the industry will likely proceed with caution.
5G connectivity is expensive, from the chips that help a device ping the network to the carrier that provides the service. For wearables like your smartwatch, fitness tracker and smart glasses (maybe like Amazon's new Echo Frames), the full 5G treatment might be overkill, and expensive enough to keep it off wearables even when 5G phones become more ubiquitous.
But lower-powered 5G could reduce prices while keeping wearables connected. Right now, this variation on 5G, referred to in the image below as NR-Light, is on the table for future discussion -- but it isn't in development yet. Look for the first of its kind no earlier than 2023, when Qualcomm predicts that batch of 5G enhancements will start becoming commercialized.
For more on the speedy data technology, read up on all the myths surrounding 5G and how 5G can help shape the world beyond fast phones alone.
Originally published earlier this week.