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This is Verizon's first 5G smartphone

Hint: The phone may seem familiar.

The Motorola Moto Z3 smartphone

You've been holding onto a 5G smartphone all along!

Sarah Tew/CNET

Verizon's first 5G smartphone didn't start out as a 5G device. But that's what it'll be once the wireless carrier formally launches its next-generation mobile service. 

The first smartphone will be Motorola's Moto Z3, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg confirmed in an interview backstage at the CES 2019 keynote presentation area on Monday. But the catch? It originally launched in August as a 4G phone with the option of a Moto Mod attachment that would eventually give it a 5G capability. 

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As it turns out, the 5G Moto Mod will make the Moto Z3 the inaugural phone once Verizon turns on its mobile 5G service. A Samsung smartphone teased by Verizon and Qualcomm at the Snapdragon Tech Summit last month will be the second device. And while AT&T and Sprint have both said they will carry the Samsung phone too, Vestberg reaffirmed that it has an exclusive deal. That indicates the Samsung phone will likely come to Verizon first for an exclusive period before moving on to the other carriers. 

While Vestberg declined to comment on the exact timing of the launch, you can sketch out the potential window. It's widely anticipated that Samsung will launch a 5G variant of its Galaxy S10, which usually launches in late February around the time of the Mobile World Congress trade show. Vestberg's comments indicate that the service and the 5G Moto Mod will launch before then. 

This would give Verizon an advantage as the first carrier to launch a 5G service with a smartphone. Carriers around the world have fallen over themselves to proclaim themselves as the first to 5G, which gives them bragging rights and helps cement the perception of network superiority. That's become critically important as the competition for consumers heat up, since network quality remains a big deciding factor.

Vestberg confirmed there would be two 5G smartphones in the first half of the year, but didn't comment on the rest of 2019.

5G is all the rage at CES 2019, and is one of the dominant trends at the show. The next generation of wireless service is expected to bring a big boost in speed and network responsiveness, which opens the door to a better mobile experience, as well new areas of tech like streaming VR or telemedicine. 

Vestberg has long proclaimed that Verizon would be the first to launch 5G. It rolled out a 5G variant of home broadband service in October, although skeptics claimed it didn't count because it used non-industry standard technology. AT&T in December launched 5G mobile service, but customers in select cities can only tap into the network using Wi-Fi hotspots, and not smartphones

Regardless of who's first, it's clear 5G is slowly turning from hype into reality, especially as broader deployments of the network are underway with many carriers around the world.  T-Mobile expects to have broader commercial service available early this year, while Sprint and LG have promised the first 5G smartphone. T-Mobile and Sprint intend to do even more together if they merge.

But Vestberg noted that while the focus has been on 5G smartphones and speeds, he believes the promise of the technology is much wider.

"You limit yourself tremendously, even at the Consumer Electronics Show, thinking 5G is another smartphone," he said. "Yes, it's going to be a smartphone, but there's going to be so much more that gets done."

Originally published Jan. 7 at 6:12 p.m. PT.
Update, Jan. 8 at 8:00 a.m. PT: Includes additional quote from CEO and additional background.

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