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5G will be less sizzle, more substance at MWC

Hype is starting to give way to reality, but the wireless industry still needs to finish ironing out the kinks for the next-gen wireless technology.

Antonio Navarro Wijkmark

5G will bring higher speeds to our phones than ever before, and it's ready and raring to go….

Well, almost.

The advent of 5G, the next generation of cellular technology, comes loaded with promises. It will enable smart cities, wireless streaming video in virtual reality, driverless cars and a huge leap in speed and reliability. The good news is we've seen demos proving it works.

But here's the bad news: We won't see the first 5G device until later this year -- and it'll likely come in the form of a wireless hotspot "puck." Phones aren't showing up until early next year at the earliest. So why should you care about 5G now?

Before 5G gets out into the wild, carriers, governments, infrastructure manufacturers, chipmakers and organizations designed to bring them all together need to do some negotiating about when and how they are going to make it happen. Mobile World Congress, happening next week in Barcelona, is where many of these conversations will take place. It's not sexy, but it's necessary.

"The dull stuff is engineers in labs, testing, testing, testing, finding something that doesn't work, fixing it," said Ben Timmons, senior director of marketing and business development for Qualcomm in Europe.

Not that people won't be shouting from the rooftops about 5G. In fact, we expect it to be on the lips of most of the attendees. "Last year's MWC was a 5G hype-fest, CES last month was a 5G hypeapolooza and 5G hype at this year's MWC will be even bigger," T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said in an email.

But the real opportunity of the show is a chance to see what the next generation of networks and phones will be capable of. Think integrated augmented and virtual-reality applications that work without wires, or low-power sensors that can run for years on a single battery charge.

"We're now getting the innate computing capability in mobile devices to give us hints of the applications that are really going to require these networks in future," Timmons said.

Ben Wood, an analyst for CCS Insight, predicts that there could be announcements from Google and its partners about its ARCore platform, its 3D-sensing camera technology. Sophisticated areas like ARCore and VR tax not only our phones, but also the networks, something that 5G will solve.

Last year at MWC, Qualcomm, Intel, Huawei and other industry leaders got together and agreed to accelerate efforts to create the first network standard, which they formalized in December. At CES in January, Qualcomm CEO Stephen Mollenkopf said 5G will be the biggest thing since electricity.

This year, Ray expects the conversation to be geared around deciding what 5G services will look like in the future, which will mean "more than just speed," encompassing talks around spectrum and applications for the internet of things. He's looking forward to having "a grown-up conversation about what 5G needs and the best path to get to real, mobile, standards based, nationwide 5G," he said.

Key players from the US and Asia are likely to have substantive plans to discuss, said Ian Fogg, senior director for mobile and telecoms at IHS Markits. Korea and Japan are at the forefront of rolling out 5G, while Verizon is testing 5G as a broadband replacement service this year. The others are all vowing to have mobile 5G networks up shortly after.

Meanwhile, Europe has to play catch-up after taking a more cautious approach.

"Despite the EU's lofty ambitions for the region to be among the 5G pace setters, most providers remain focussed on making the most of their significant investments in 4G/LTE," said CCS Insight analyst Kester Mann. "I'd say Western Europe is probably one to two years adrift of trailblazing markets like the US and South Korea."

Perhaps a meeting or two in Barcelona will jumpstart their ambitions. 

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