Next-generation 5G wireless service, promising ultra-fast download speeds and greater opportunities for connectivity, is here at last.
When fully implemented, 5G is set to offer download speeds many times faster than the current 4G LTE wireless networks and significantly lower latency times, meaning the amount of time between data leaving a source and arriving at its desired destination. The technology promises to enable a new era of the internet of things, where billions of devices in homes and across cities will be connected at all times.
But analysts say much work needs to be done in the year ahead to help 5G reach its full potential.
T-Mobile US Inc. in December launched its 5G wireless network that covers over 200 million U.S. users in more than 5,000 cities and towns. The wireless provider expects to expand that coverage following the closing of its merger with Sprint Corp.. Sprint itself launched 5G services in parts of nine cities this year, including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City, providing coverage to about 16 million people, according to the company.
Verizon Communications Inc., meanwhile, launched its 5G mobile network in April in Chicago and Minneapolis and expects the service to reach more than 30 cities by the end of the year. Verizon also offers 5G home broadband services in select cities.
Wireless competitor AT&T Inc. previously only offered its 5G services to business customers, but it plans to make those available to consumers in several markets by the end of 2019. The company is targeting a nationwide 5G deployment in the first half of 2020.
Jeff Moore, principal at Wave7 Research, a research firm that analyzes competition in the telecom industry, said 5G has been more of a "branding exercise" for some of the wireless carriers, who have overpromised the technology's capabilities while only providing coverage to select areas. The analyst also said that the way consumers use their phones currently does not require the faster speeds 5G offers.
"Is 5G capable of delivering dramatically higher speeds? Yes, it is. But the next question is, what are the use cases?" Moore said.
Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. in February debuted its Galaxy S10 5G, which starts at $1,299 and is available through Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T. The Galaxy S10 5G has a 3D depth-sensing camera, which can be used for real-time augmented reality. The company also launched the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G in August with T-Mobile and Verizon.
While the Galaxy S10 5G is only able to access high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum for 5G service, the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G is 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.
In 2018, fellow smartphone-maker Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. launched its first 5G smartphone, called the Moto Z3, as a cheaper option compared to peers, at $299. Motorola has declared the device to be the "first 5G-upgradable phone." Though the Z3 itself is a 4G phone, Motorola in April launched the 5G Moto Mod, a device that sells for $349 and looks like a phone case, which can be snapped onto the phone so it will work with Verizon's 5G network.
LG Electronics Inc., meanwhile, in May launched the LG V50 ThinQ 5G smartphone, which starts at $999 and is sold through Sprint and Verizon.
These 5G smartphones should be considered more "status symbols" than game-changers given the scarcity of networks to facilitate the advertised uses for 5G, said Holger Mueller, who is vice president and principal analyst at technology research and advisory firm Constellation Research and has expertise in next-generation applications.
"It's really a technology demo right now," Mueller said.
Once 5G adoption becomes more widespread, however, Mueller predicts device-makers will push 5G applications for the connected home, including smart thermostats that can be controlled by a smartphone and smart refrigerators that are programmed to keep track of expiration dates and usage of the products inside.
Telcos, he noted, will definitely be looking "to get their money back off their [5G] capex investment, but we're a little far from that happening right now."
Apple still 'doing its homework'
Noticeably missing from the 5G race this year was Apple Inc., which is not expected to release a 5G iPhone until at least 2020. The delay was due in part to Apple's ongoing legal battle with QUALCOMM Inc. over patents and licensing that the companies finally settled in April. Qualcomm became the sole U.S.-based supplier of 5G modem chips after Intel Corp. exited the 5G smartphone business earlier this year.
Patrick Filkins, a senior research analyst at market research firm IDC who specializes in the internet of things and mobile networks, said avoiding a rush to market with 5G could help Apple avoid some pitfalls experienced by early adopters and could actually be a catalyst for broader 5G adoption.
"Apple is doing its homework, its due diligence," Filkins said. "They'll have this benefit of a year lag, and they'll be able to come out with a higher-end multihandset that could become a selling point for them."
For his part, J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee expects Apple to unveil four iPhones featuring 5G connectivity at its 2020 fall hardware refresh event. Specifically, Chatterjee predicts Apple will release a 5.4-inch iPhone, two 6.1-inch iPhones and one 6.7-inch iPhone.
IDC's Filkins said the industry should have a clearer idea of 5G's potential as the coverage map continues to expand in the new year.
Still, the widely touted future use cases for 5G — including cloud gaming, augmented and virtual reality, autonomous driving, telemedicine, industrial automation, and smart cities — will likely not become a reality until at least 2023, he said, as they rely on 5G specifications that have yet to be finalized.
"If you look at the 5G technology roadmap, we're going out four or five years where there will be new features built into the network that will dramatically change what it can and cannot do," he said.