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5G super speeds are coming. Here's what they'll be like

Warning: 5G may not be so amazing or life-changing right away. The first generation of phones and service will have a lot of issues to work out.

James Martin/CNET

At the 2017 Mobile World Congress trade show, Roger Gurnani, then the chief information and technology architect for Verizon, walked on stage at a Samsung event to talk about the two companies' work on developing 5G.

Gurnani spoke of the field trials that were under way, and at the end he teased that we might see a Samsung 5G phone in a year. It wasn't clear whether he was joking -- the Samsung executive next to him looked surprised by the suggestion.

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An early 5G test van parked at the Verizon campus in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Fast-forward to this year's show, and the only thing certain is that no 5G phone exists.

That's the hype of 5G, the next-generation wireless technology that promises to be significantly faster and more responsive than anything before it. In some cases -- such as its potential application in self-driving cars, telemedicine, the trend of devices called internet of things -- it can be life-changing.

But so far, it's mostly been promises. Unless you're in one of a few select towns -- fans of the HGTV show "Fixer Upper" will appreciate that Chip and Joanna Gaines' Magnolia Market at the Silos shopping complex in Waco, Texas, has an early form of AT&T's 5G -- the superfast technology is just something you've read about.

The good news at MWC 2018 is that 5G is steadily progressing from hype to reality. Verizon and AT&T plan to launch limited mobile 5G service this year, while T-Mobile and Sprint are setting things up now for a commercial launch early next year. Handset makers and chipmakers are working to get devices ready for 2019 as well.

The bad news: The early days of 5G will bring some growing pains, and those promised insane speeds may not show up consistently -- or at all. After a poll of the network experts at MWC, here's what the industry thinks mobile 5G will look like when carriers finally flip the switch.

The 5G race

MWC 2018 saw US carriers jockeying for pole position when it comes to 5G. With advanced networks being the next big thing, each carrier is eager to bolster its reputation for service quality -- which all hope will translate into consumers heading their way.

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Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure has promised to build the first nationwide 5G network by early 2019. It'll take a big step in that direction this year when it rolls out 5G capabilities to six cities, including Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles, though Sprint customers won't be able to access 5G until the service launches next year.

T-Mobile said it would deploy 5G in 30 cities this year -- including New York and Los Angeles -- but likewise wouldn't launch the service until 2019 because 5G phones aren't ready.

AT&T has said it will have mobile 5G available in a dozen markets, including Atlanta and Dallas, later this year. Verizon Chief Technology Officer Hans Vestberg said his company would be first in mobile 5G services, but gave few other details. The company is also deploying 5G as a fixed service intended to replace your home internet connection, starting with Sacramento, California.

Then there's a cable company that's seriously talking about 6G already.

All of these plans are enough to make your head spin.

"It's a little confusing, isn't it? It's confusing to me, and I do this for a living," T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray quipped at a press conference.

'Pucks' vs. phones

Because those phones aren't ready yet, Verizon and AT&T plan to deploy "pucks," or mobile hotspots that capture 5G signals and broadcast Wi-Fi, giving your devices a portable internet connection.

Pucks and laptop cards were prevalent when LTE first rolled around, because it was the easiest and cheapest way to release a device running on a next-generation wireless device.

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Chances are, you're probably never going to use one. These were niche devices even back in the early LTE days and are mostly useful to the carriers because they offer data on how the network runs with real customers.

You're likely more interested in the first 5G phones. But be mindful that the early batch may suffer from some of the issues that plagued early 4G phones. Devices such as the HTC Thunderbolt were bulky, had poor battery life and tended to overheat.

While Ray said that he expects a premium flagship will get 5G, AT&T Chief Technology Officer Andre Fuetsch said there may be phones specifically built to house 5G technology, similar to the Thunderbolt.

"The first generation will come with its challenges," Fuetsch said.

ZTE said it has been testing both the infrastructure and devices for a while to avoid these problems. "It's just how you best optimize the implementation," said Lixin Cheng, CEO of ZTE's mobile business. (He is not related to this reporter.)     

Likewise, Verizon downplayed the concerns. "We learned a lot by being the 4G LTE leader," said Brian Higgins, head of devices for Verizon. "One of those is how to help our ecosystem partners improve the infrastructure, device, battery life and apps required to take advantage of new technology."  

Spotty coverage at first

Another problem with 4G LTE in those early days was coverage gaps. One minute, you were enjoying high-speed online access and streaming video, and then next everything came grinding to a halt as you were kicked back down to 3G. Back then, even if you got back into a 4G area, the phone often wouldn't recognize it.

"Consumers should absolutely expect those early 5G networks will suffer from some of the same ills," said Dan Hays, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCooper.

T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray at MWC 2018

T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray at MWC 2018 as he explains how the company's use of different bands of spectrum resembles different layers on a cake. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

Given how fast 5G is supposed to be -- anywhere from 10 to 100 times faster -- there could be a more dramatic dropoff this time around. This is especially the case with super-high-frequency radio waves -- which deliver the fastest wireless speeds -- because they often have short range and can easily be disrupted.

"Imagine if you're going on a highway at 60 miles per hour, and then you get stuck on a street going 10 mph," said Jefferson Wang, a managing director at Accenture Strategy. "It's a jolt."

The carriers are hoping to address these issues. T-Mobile and Sprint both intend to use lower-frequency airwaves for 5G, offering broader coverage and less chance of a dramatic fall to 4G. 

"The 5G experience from Sprint will be more uniform," said Sprint Chief Technology Officer John Saw.      

But for all of the carriers, there will plenty of areas where there will be no 5G coverage. That's particularly true for the deployments we'll see this year. 

The good news: carriers are also upgrading their 4G networks with higher speeds so the transition won't be so bad. They're all employing a technology called Gigabit LTE, which boosts current speeds considerably. Phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S9 are already able to access it.

Price hikes?

Another concern is whether prices will change with the introduction of 5G. Sprint's Claure reiterated in a keynote address at MWC that he expects to market 5G as a premium service with a premium price tag.

Is it that crazy in this competitive environment? Wang notes that the model already exists for home broadband.

"You are already tolerating a payment for higher speeds," he said.

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Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure speaking at MWC 2018. He believes 5G gives him a chance to raise prices. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

Others are a bit skeptical. Hays doesn't believe consumers will pay a premium because there aren't any obvious benefits yet. After all, you can stream "Stranger Things" on your phone just fine on 4G.

"To think you can just put 5G out there and just say now it's some form of premium service, I think that's probably going to be a little mythical," T-Mobile's Ray said.

At this year's MWC, I asked Vestberg about the claim made by Gurnani, who's no longer with the company. He said he expects to see 5G phones by MWC 2019.

"But," he added after a brief pause, "it's a qualified guess."

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