You may not want a 5G phone today, but your opinion will change very soon. That's because the network and devices -- limited today -- will get supercharged heading into 2020.
5G is touted as a game-changing technology, with the ability to dramatically boost the speed and coverage of wireless networks. It can run between 10 and 100 times faster than your typical 4G cellular connection today. It's quicker than anything you can get from a physical fiber-optic cable in your house. And latency, the amount of time between when your phone pings the network and when it responds, is faster than what Wi-Fi provides.
But while 5G is real, some of the promises remain the stuff of hype.
The next-generation networks are finally live in the US and other countries around the globe, but they're not perfect. The biggest drawbacks of 5G today are spotty coverage in relatively few cities and expensive, limited devices. If you buy one of the 5G phones available now, it will never be able to tap into the broader 5G networks of AT&T and T-Mobile. And 4G connections are getting close to some early 5G speeds.
There's good news ahead, though. 5G is expanding to new locations quickly, and carriers are gearing up to turn on their wider networks. When a new modem hits the market late this year, it will solve many of the biggest issues with 5G devices today. There will likely be more phones on the market, and prices will eventually come down.
By 2022, 5G coverage will be far more widespread (though some remote areas may not have coverage). And since you're holding onto your phone for longer (on average, three years instead of two), you'll want one that can tap into that ultra-fast network when it becomes mainstream.
"Like with any first-generation tech, the first devices are really expensive … and there are only a small number of people subscribing to the networks," IHS Markit analyst Wayne Lam said. But he predicted 5G could become mass-market as soon as next year -- especially if Apple launches a 5G iPhone.
Waiting on modems
The dramatic improvements in the US really hinge on one thing:.
Right now, Qualcomm is the lone option for 5G handsets aimed at the US market. And that means the devices we see and the type of networks available are dependent on what technology's embedded in its wireless chips.
Qualcomm's current 5G modem, the X50, runs on 5G networks only. Handset makers need to buy a separate chip that can connect to older networks. Two modems means a more expensive, bulkier and battery-hogging phone. It's part of the reason why we've seen 5G phones cost so much more than their 4G siblings. The Galaxy S10 5G costs $1,299, while the regular S10 starts at $900.
The X55, out later this year, will be able to run on older generations of wireless technology in addition to 5G, addressing a lot of the X50 issues. You'll also be able to switch between carriers with the same phone -- something you can't do with current 5G devices, which are tied to a specific network. With the X55, handset makers can build unlocked 5G phones, much like what's available with 4G LTE devices.
It's wise to hold off until the X55 becomes available since X50-powered phones can't be upgraded to support certain radio airwaves that carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T are using to get better coverage.
"You're getting a device that's essentially hamstrung to a certain degree," Technalysis analyst Bob O'Donnell said. "You won't really get that many benefits of 5G except in very specific locations for a brief period of time."
A lot more new devices -- and they'll probably get cheaper
Right now "we still have the situation where we have flagships [that] have a 4G version and a 5G version," Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said. "In Android when we get to the X55, the majority of flagships in all markets [that have 5G networks] are going to be 5G."
It's possible some handset makers could launch X55-powered phones this year, "but the majority of devices will be in the beginning of next year," he said.
One reason he's optimistic about 2020 is Qualcomm's integration of the X55 capabilities into a new Snapdragon processor that comes early next year. That will make phones even cheaper and more power efficient, among other benefits.
Samsung at MWC in February said it's planning to use the new integrated chip in future Galaxy S devices (likely starting with 2020's Galaxy S11).
When it comes to 5G devices available now, Samsung has launched the $1,299 Galaxy S10 5G across all four major networks in the US. LG'S V50 ThinQ retails for $1,152 at Sprint and $999 at Verizon. Xiaomi's Mi Mix 3 5G sold for 599 euros ($679) when it hit the market in May, an amount that's less than many 4G phones today. OnePlus, Motorola, Huawei and Xiaomi are among the other companies that've launched 5G phones.
Qualcomm's Amon predicted that by this holiday season or Chinese New Year in early 2020, all major flagship Android phones will run 5G.
Not everyone is quite as optimistic.
"You will see a few more devices come out this year," said Heidi Hemmer, Verizon vice president of networking and technology. But "it's not [going to be] a huge explosion."
Sprint Chief Technology Officer John Saw, meanwhile, predicted that by the end of 2020, "we'll see 5G being a regular capability in high-end phones."
That could even include a 5G iPhone, if Apple and Qualcomm scramble to make up for lost development time while they were battling over licensing. The two companies fought in the courts for two years and didn't partner on mobile technology during much of that time. They finally settled their dispute in April, and Apple signed a multiyear chipset supply agreement with Qualcomm, gaining access once again to the company's high-end modems.
All wireless signals travel over invisible airwaves via radio frequency called spectrum. Early 5G has used a high-frequency band called millimeter wave, which gives you super speeds and capacity, but later rollouts will use lower-frequency bands -- dubbed sub-6GHz -- that offer wider range, but speeds similar to or slightly better than 4G networks.
The range of the sub-6GHz spectrum depends on where it's deployed. In flat, open areas, midband spectrum -- the kind Sprint uses -- can travel more than a mile, but in cities it's less than half a mile, Sprint's Saw said. T-Mobile will run even lower-frequency spectrum that has even longer range.
If spectrum was compared to women's shoes, T-Mobile's low-band network would be like flats, said Peter Linder, 5G evangelist at networking gear provider Ericsson. "They take you everywhere all day," he said. Sprint's midband network would be like kitten heels: "They're great in going to work," Linder said. And high-band, millimeter wave spectrum is like high heels. "They're short distances, but very special," he said.
During a test of Verizon's millimeter wave versus Sprint's midband spectrum, CNET reporter Eli Blumenthal found that downloading Stranger Things season 3 on Verizon took roughly 52 seconds, while Sprint needed about 8 minutes and 40 seconds. But Sprint's coverage area was much bigger. The company expected to reach about 700,000 people in Chicago right off the bat with 5G, while Verizon currently only covers select city blocks in crowded areas.
It's when the companies combine their millimeter wave and sub-6GHz networks that coverage will dramatically improve. "In running around Chicago, one thing that became clear is how a true 5G network really needs a combination of technologies, not just one over the other," Blumenthal said.
AT&T and T-Mobile have said they plan to have nationwide 5G using different kinds of spectrum next year. They'll put millimeter wave in crowded cities or places like stadiums to boost capacity and speed and then use the other spectrum to send the signals farther.
"Our strategy is both low and high," said Gordon Mansfield, AT&T's vice president of converged access and device technology,
Sprint and T-Mobile are counting on their planned merger to provide nationwide service to consumers. Both companies have said a deal would supercharge their 5G ambitions, given their respective spectrum assets.
Verizon, meanwhile, hasn't detailed what its plans are beyond rolling out millimeter wave, and it hasn't publicly said what specific spectrum bands it will use. But it does plan to go nationwide with a "multispectrum play," said Verizon's Hemmer.
"We'll utilize locations with existing 4G sites today and build [5G] on those," she said. But "we're not planning on deploying in sub-6 in the near term."
Carriers are quickly building out their networks
It seems like every week, a new city is getting 5G. Because 5G shares the same essential backbone as 4G and sometimes just needs a software and radio update, it's easier for carriers to upgrade their networks than before.
So far, Verizon has 5G millimeter wave service in four markets (Chicago; Denver, Minneapolis and Providence, Rhode Island), and it plans to expand to 26 more by the end of this year. Sprint's 5G midband network is live in five markets (Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Kansas City) and will come to Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix and Washington, DC, in the coming weeks.
T-Mobile has launched its millimeter wave network in six cities: Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York. Its broader low-band 5G network will go live when Qualcomm's X55 is ready. The two companies, along with Ericsson, last week ran a test using a Qualcomm X55-powered device on T-Mobile's 600MHz wireless network, a milestone in making sure devices will work on the network.
T-Mobile hasn't yet said what cities will first get service on its low-band 5G network.
AT&T, meanwhile, has launched its 5G millimeter wave network in 20 markets, but only to select businesses. Mansfield said the consumer side will be available later this year when sub-6GHz is ready.
"We believe, from a consumer perspective, we have to get to mass coverage, not just focused on millimeter wave," he said.
Tricks to boost 5G speeds even more
Aside from building out their networks, there are a few technological innovation carriers can use to boost coverage and speed. Some of the features are available today, but others, when rolled out over the next couple of years, will improve 5G networks, both in terms of coverage and speed.
Dual connectivity, which is available today, lets phones run on both 4G and 5G networks to make sure you never drop a signal even if you move out of 5G range. It also combines the two to give you faster speeds.
Sprint's variation, called "split-mode," lets the company simultaneously deliver 4G LTE Advanced and 5G service and gives Sprint "a nearly identical footprint" for both 4G LTE and 5G coverage.
"On the same hardware, you kill two birds with one phone," Sprint CTO Saw said.
Spectrum refarming lets carriers shift radio airwaves used in older networks to 5G. In the past, carriers had to wait until essentially all users of an older network had left a particular band before it could be changed to the newer technology. It was either 3G or 4G -- not both.
Dynamic spectrum sharing changes things when it comes to 5G. The technology, likely available in 2020 in the US, lets carriers use the same spectrum band for both 4G and 5G. Instead of having different roads for buses and cars, DSS is like having one big highway with separate lanes for buses and cars. A software update can quickly turn the current 4G LTE networks into 5G, which means cities and towns can get 5G service faster.
Carrier aggregation, commonly used in 4G, has the ability to combine multiple wireless signals into one. This allows for even higher speeds than when running on one band by itself. It's like combining several one-lane roads to make a multilane highway with a faster speed limit. 5G marks the first time a cellular technology can power a device at the same time as a previous generation, 4G.
In the US, the network operators could start using the technology as soon as 2020.
Rushing to buy a 5G phone right now might not make much sense. But when you're ready to upgrade next year, it sure does.