|Image source: Samsung|
The first 5G smartphones will come to U.S. markets in 2019, giving early adopters their first taste of the next-generation technology. But analysts note widespread adoption of 5G is still a year or two off.
Several phone makers — including Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., LG Electronics Inc. and Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. — are racing to be first in releasing 5G smartphones in 2019, while industry heavyweight Apple Inc. is not expected to launch a 5G iPhone until at least 2020. Although the overall number of 5G devices sold is expected to remain relatively small in 2019, experts say these first phones are laying important groundwork for innovation to come.
Samsung said in December 2018 that it will launch its first 5G smartphone in the first half of 2019. The company has partnered with both Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. and plans to use Qualcomm Inc. as the sole provider of its 5G modem chips.
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While the first 5G smartphone from Samsung will only access high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum for 5G services, a second phone planned for release in the second half of 2019 with AT&T will be able to access both 5G millimeter wave and sub-6 GHz low- and midband spectrum. High-frequency spectrum can carry massive amounts of data at high speeds with low latencies, but its shorter wavelengths mean it has trouble traveling long distances and penetrating certain surfaces.
Competitor LG in August 2018 said it partnered with Sprint Corp. to launch its first 5G device in the first half of 2019, though its specifications have yet to be announced. Motorola, meanwhile, unveiled the Moto Z3 in August 2018, declaring it to be the "first 5G-upgradable phone." Though the Z3 itself is a 4G phone, Motorola plans in 2019 to launch the 5G Moto Mod, a device that looks like a phone case, that can be snapped onto the phone so it will work with Verizon's 5G network.
Data from consulting firm Deloitte Global expects about 20 handset vendors worldwide to launch 5G-ready handsets in 2019. Deloitte has predicted that about 1 million 5G handsets will be shipped globally by year's end. By comparison, the firm expects 1.5 billion smartphone sales total.
Apple on the sidelines
Of the handset vendors expected to unveil 5G phones in 2019, one name is notably absent. Apple's iconic iPhone may not get a 5G-enabled chip until at least 2020, due in part to Apple's ongoing legal battle with Qualcomm over patents and licensing. Apple plans to use Intel Corp.'s 5G chips in its devices, but analysts largely agree that Intel is lagging Qualcomm in the race to develop a 5G chip ready for market.
"The reports don't necessarily say Apple will come out with a 5G iPhone in 2020. They say that the earliest Apple will be able to do it is 2020. It may be later than 2020," Gartner technology analyst Mark Hung said.
Hung based this belief on the fact that Apple released its iPhone XS in 2018, offering only "an incremental improvement" over its 2017 iPhone X release.
"If they continue with this cadence,  is the year when they would have the brand new iPhone and 2020 would be a more incremental design," Hung said. "It's probably safe to say that Apple won't come out with a 5G iPhone at least until 2020, but if they follow their usual release patterns, really they probably won't have a 5G iPhone until 2021."
If Apple does indeed wait until 2021 to release a 5G iPhone, Hung believes the company could cede market share to other phone makers who moved faster.
"If Apple comes out with a 5G iPhone in 2020, there won't be any impact at all given how sparse coverage will be for most geographies in 2019. But I think if they don't have a 5G iPhone out in 2020, then that's when you'll start to see an impact," the analyst said.
Will Townsend, a senior analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy who focuses on carrier equipment and equipment providers, is more bullish on Apple's 5G outlook, however, noting that this will not be the first time Apple has trailed its competition to the market and still secured a loyal consumer following in the long run.
"They've proven over time that, yeah, they may dip a little bit in the interim, but they make up for it on the back end," Townsend said.
Townsend added that Apple holding off on the rush to market could help the company avoid some early hurdles and allow more time for additional 5G applications to be developed.
Other devices and use cases
Much of the attention in 2019 will focus on 5G smartphones, but the first 5G devices launched in 2018 notably were mobile hotspots and routers. Verizon launched 5G residential broadband service in four markets in 2018, while AT&T launched mobile 5G services in parts of 12 markets by way of a mobile hotspot.
Deloitte estimates 1 million 5G hotspots will be sold worldwide in 2019 and another 1 million 5G fixed wireless access devices will be installed.
Looking ahead at other potential devices, 5G technology is expected to transform the internet of things — a network of interconnected electronics, vehicles and home appliances that interact and exchange data — in industries ranging from transportation to manufacturing and healthcare. Top 5G use cases are expected to include augmented and virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, telemedicine, industrial automation and smart cities.
Some of these use cases, such as autonomous vehicles and industrial automation, are further out than others, as they rely on 5G specifications that have yet to be finalized. But Townsend said the early seeds for innovation are being planted now and will bear 5G fruits that have yet to be imagined.
"What I'm really excited about is all of the innovators and all of the entrepreneurs working with Verizon or with AT&T to incubate these really cool [internet of things] ideas or medical ideas ... it's really going to change our lives significantly," Townsend said.