The next-generation network technology promises blazing speeds, smooth and stable connections and new possibilities for VR, self-driving cars and robotics. This being the big new thing for the mobile industry, all the players -- from phone makers and infrastructure vendors to chipmakers and wireless carriers -- have been desperate to demonstrate how ready they are.
But at Mobile World Congress, there was far more buzz about theand than about the early 5G devices being shown off. The lack of attention paid to all the 5G phones makes you wonder whether all the racing and chest-beating was truly necessary, and serves as a reminder that the next-generation wireless technology is still in its early days.
Part of the problem is that 5G being "here" doesn't necessarily mean it's here for you. With early coverage being quite sparse, industry experts agree that adoption won't really kick off until late 2019 and into next year.
"5G radios and phones will be better in 2020," said Frank Gillett, an analyst at Forrester. "Consumers will continue to pay attention to the basics of price, screen size and cameras, with 5G an afterthought until it comes on more affordable phones and without a pricey monthly plan."
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Ahead of MWC, Samsung was the first company to actually unveil a 5G phone (the ). But other companies, particularly Chinese phone makers such as Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi, which a few years ago were mostly unheard of in the US and Europe, have been teasing demos on Twitter for several months now. For them, being early with 5G is a chance to differentiate and get ahead.
In spite of their being among the first companies to unveil 5G devices at the show, most 5G phones are currently top-tier and at the more expensive end of the spectrum, meaning the potential customer base for them right now is proportionally quite small.
The likelihood is that the majority of people will wait until 5G phones are more affordable before diving in. Waiting may also mean that the technology is better-refined and able to work across more networks.
The companies that didn't bring a 5G phone to MWC this year didn't seem much concerned about lagging behind, either. They join Apple in the ranks of phone makers working toward 5G futures on a longer and fuzzier timeline.
"We believe that this year is literally the first introduction round, so we think probably early next year is a good time for a mass-market 5G rollout in the key markets where we see an opportunity, like Western Europe and the US," HMD Chief Executive Florian Seiche said in an interview with CNET.
"The mass deployment to 5G customers will be the end of the year and 2020," said Honor CEO George Zhao. The company will bring out its first 5G phone later in 2019.
The foldable eclipse
Mobile companies also had a tricky time at MWC trying to drum up excitement over 5G phones, because it's hard to see or even fully experience the difference the next-generation networks will bring.
The limelight was instead well and truly stolen by visually impressive foldable phones with their flexing wraparound screens. There is some crossover between 5G and foldable devices -- the Mate X, for example -- but it's the spectacle of the folding mechanism that drew the crowds at the show.
"The foldable design has captured people's imagination, but this was a technology we have been tracking for years now -- it just so happens to coincide with the launch of 5G," said IHS Markit's analyst Wayne Lam. Foldable phones signal an evolution in mobile design that could change the future of phones and tablets as device categories, he added.
It's no wonder that after years of phones looking markedly similar, people are excited to see something new.
"These folding devices come at an important time for the smartphone industry, when phone makers are struggling to differentiate their products and consumers are indifferent to this homogeneous 'sea of smartphone sameness'," said CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood in a blog post. The smartphone of the last decade or so has essentially remained "black touch-screen monobloc," he said.
5G, for all its many promises, is unlikely to have a similarly profound impact on our everyday experience of owning a phone. Yes, it will make using online apps and services faster and more stable, but industry experts believe that the most exciting and important uses for 5G will be in business, the internet of things, smart cities and automobiles.
Carriers in competition
In the lead-up to 5G actually going live, many carriers were climbing over each other be first. South Korean carrier KT in December claimed to be the first, offering a mobile 5G network and a robot for its first customer.
The competition has been particularly fierce in the US. Verizon launched its Verizon Home 5G service in October, but critics argued that it didn't stick to industry standards, so technically didn't count. AT&T launched its mobile service in a dozen markets in December, but the deployments are tiny.
"They're small pockets," AT&T Chief Technology Officer Andre Fuetsch said in an interview at MWC on Tuesday. The company hasn't publicly said where the networks are, and noted that only small-business customers are using it.
On Monday, Sprint CEO Michel Combes said his company would have the first 5G network, but altered the definition.
"We're first in real mobile 5G in the US with real coverage, real devices, real proposition," Combes said during a press conference at the show.
The company has committed to covering a combined 1,000 square miles across nine cities by the middle of the year. No other carrier has said how much area it'll cover.
Europe has been playing catch-up to an extent, but in the past 12 months both EE and Vodafone have stepped up their efforts to show off their 5G prowess. Just ahead of MWC, Vodafone claimed the first phone connection to a live 5G network, while EE announced back in December at the Qualcomm summit in Hawaii that it would bring 5G to 16 UK cities this year.
The one thing that can be said for the carriers is that they've helped to build momentum and ensure the correct infrastructure is in place, which means 5G will roll out faster than the industry originally expected, and faster than 4G did. This is something that we'll all benefit from, but is unlikely to set individual networks apart -- especially given that they're mostly national players fighting for glory on an international stage.
"There's been too much attention on this 5G rollout for there to be a clear simple winner," Gillett said.
Qualcomm for the win?
If anyone looked like the winner in 5G at MWC this year, it was chipmaker Qualcomm. The company had its tech in every 5G phone at the show, and has partnerships with carriers from around the world. During a cocktail reception on Tuesday, Qualcomm had every handset maker, carrier and infrastructure partner on stage with glasses of champagne. It was a crowded scene.
"Qualcomm does have an advantage for handset modems and integrated chips, which will keep it strong in the 5G era," said Gillett, the Forrester analyst. But, he added, Samsung and Huawei also have their own chips coming, and while it will be tough to compete with Qualcomm, it won't be impossible.
For Qualcomm's part, it's not playing favorites between any of its 5G partners. "The joy of the last 18 months has been the joy of everything everyone's announced," said Ben Timmons, Qualcomm's European director of business development, at a pre-MWC briefing in London. Different dominant players will emerge in the transition from 4G to 5G, he added, but it will take time.
"It's not a question of whether you're launching on a particular day in a particular month, it's what you do to exploit the technology," he said. If there are winners in the 5G era, they won't just be the companies that move quickly to get ahead, he added. It will be those who move "imaginatively" to make the most of the technology.
"There will be changes," Timmons said. "But I've no idea what they're going to be."
Additional reporting by Roger Cheng.