5G phones are coming earlier than you thought

A standards body says the next-generation wireless network can hit a deadline of 2019 instead of 2020.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
3 min read

Qualcomm CEO Stephen Mollenkopf and his company have been pushing to get their chip technology ready for 5G.

James Martin/CNET

5G's coming -- and it will be here faster than predicted.

5G New Radio (5G NR), a flavor of the next-generation wireless network that's expected to be the global standard, should be available for large-scale deployments in 2019, a year earlier than anticipated, nearly two dozen companies said Sunday.

The companies who've vowed to reach a standard for 5G for that timeframe included a mix of wireless carriers, chip providers and device makers -- such as Qualcomm, Intel, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile parent company Deutsche Telekom -- that are part of the 3GPP standards group.

"For consumers, this means they're going to get an elevated broadband experience in 2019," Rasmus Hellberg, senior director of technical marketing at Qualcomm, told CNET in an interview ahead of the news, which was announced at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona, Spain.

Notably missing from the list was Verizon Wireless, which is pursuing its own flavor of 5G. Verizon has said it will offer 5G to some customers in 11 cities by midyear. It's not full mobile wireless. Instead it's a replacement for fixed broadband.

Many carriers, like AT&T, had pushed for 5G technology to arrive sooner rather than later. The technology is expected to be 100 times faster than our current 4G LTE wireless technology and 10 times speedier than what Google Fiber offers through a physical connection to the home. Experts say it should enable uses like virtual reality and augmented reality, as well as things we can't even think of today. And our phones should get a lot faster.

To that end, Qualcomm on Sunday separately unveiled its first modems that embed technology for 5G, 4G, 3G and 2G connections onto one chip. The processors, part of the X50 5G modem family, will be available in time for 5G NR device deployments in 2019.

Qualcomm in October unveiled its first Snapdragon X50 chip, but that processor only connects to 5G networks based on early standards of carriers like Verizon and Korea Telecom. Phones typically have chips that support older wireless technologies so users don't drop calls or lose data connections when the newer technology's signal is weak. To hook up to an older 4G or 3G network, devices will need a second wireless chip. The initial X50 processor is aimed to appear first in phones in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

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The new family of X50 chips, whose exact names Qualcomm hasn't yet detailed, won't require a second modem. They also can connect to 5G and 4G networks at the same time, which helps users maintain a strong wireless connection.

Qualcomm says the chips will first appear in mobile devices. Typically, new wireless technology first shows up in standalone devices such as wireless hotspots.

"We're squarely targeting new family of modems at premium tier mobile devices first," Sherif Hanna, Qualcomm staff manager of technical marketing, said in an interview. "Thereafter, everything we've learned from mobile can extend to non-mobile applications ... [such as] fixed wireless broadband."

Qualcomm declined to say when it will give test samples of the chips to customers but said they'll be in devices in 2019.

Here's the full list of companies supporting 5G NR for 2019:

AT&T, NTT Docomo, SK Telecom, Vodafone, Ericsson, Qualcomm, British Telecom, Telstra, Korea Telecom, Intel, LG Uplus, KDDI, LG Electronics, Telia Company, Swisscom, TIM, Etisalat Group, Huawei, Sprint, Vivo, ZTE and Deutsche Telekom.