Smartphone manufacturers ready to roll out 5G handsets ahead of first networks’ launch in 2019
Early adopters of 5G phones will get access to a data superhighway all to themselves, promising not just lightning fast high-resolution downloads but instant connections; the shopping experience will be revolutionised too
5G networks were on everyone’s lips at the recent Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, and it’s starting to look like the handsets unveiled there – including the Samsung Galaxy S9/S9+ and Sony XZ2 – will be the last generation that aren’t 5G-compatible.
At the show Qualcomm, the maker of the Snapdragon chip sets that enable most of the flagship Android smartphones on the market, demonstrated its X50 chip in a modem capable of downloading at a speed of 4.51 gigabits per second (gbps).
The X50 is ready to be put into 5G phones, and Qualcomm has already signed up handset makers Xiaomi, LG, Sony Mobile, HTC, OnePlus and HMD Global, which makes Nokia phones.
Meanwhile, Richard Yu, chief executive of Huawei’s consumer business, used a keynote speech to unveil the 5G-ready Balong 5G01 chip exclusively for use in Huawei 5G devices. He said Huawei would launch its first 5G phone in the second half of this year.
Although that’s going to be before 5G networks are available anywhere in the world, it’s clear that, when it comes to 5G, or fifth-generation wireless systems, the phone makers are go. So what about Samsung and Apple? There may have been no announcements from those two companies, but both are sure to be working on 5G phones.
“South Korea, Australia and Japan will be in the first wave of operators with 5G networks in early 2019, with China Mobile the latter half of 2019,” says Sherif Hanna, director of product marketing for 4G/5G modems at Qualcomm.
5G network trials are already under way in Hong Kong. Also up to speed will be several cities in the United States, with AT&T and Verizon planning to launch 5G services late this year. Unless Huawei or Samsung spring a surprise towards the end of this year, they won’t have a phone capable of taking advantage of any early-launch 5G services.
It was Qualcomm that had the most to say at this year’s MWC about what 5G would mean for the average phone user.
“We’re doing a lot of work with our partners, including Nokia, Huawei, ZTE and Ericsson, to make sure our 5G chips work with their 5G equipment,” says Hanna. “We’re expecting the first 5G devices and networks in the fist half of 2019, and a lot of them will be based on the Snapdragon X50.”
Hanna stresses how important cloud computing will be in the 5G era. “The fast connection to the cloud means maybe there doesn’t need to be as much flash storage on the devices – everyone could get free storage on the cloud.”
How 5G phones make the best use of lightning quick connectivity to the cloud is still to be worked out, and battery efficiency may be another concern on the first-generation 5G phones. But Hanna thinks there’s a clear reason people will want to get one of the first 5G phones.
“For people living in a major urban centre, 5G will make sense immediately, because with a 5G phone they will get access to a data superhighway all to themselves,” he says.
The 5G revolution won’t just affect phones. SK Telecom has unveiled a 5G tablet, while Intel’s booth at MWS had a reference design for a 5G-capable laptop computer. Microsoft, Dell, HP and Lenovo have committed to producing 5G laptops with Intel for 2019.
So what will a 5G-enabled PC do? “Imagine immersing in untethered [virtual reality] from anywhere in the world, or downloading a 250 megabyte file in seconds from a parking lot,” says Robert Topol, general manager of 5G Advanced Technologies at Intel.
“Or imagine being able to continue participating in a multiplayer game as you ride in an autonomous vehicle on the way to class.”
From high-quality video on the go, to high-end gaming, and connectivity that swaps seamlessly between Wi-fi and cellular networks, 5G laptops will be radically different.
“It will make connecting online from anywhere, anytime the norm,” says Topol of the prototype, which is capable of handling 4K video streaming and downloading 5 at a rate of gigabits per second on the 800Hz bandwidth.
A lot of the talk around 5G is about instant downloads and streaming video in ever higher resolution, but the case has to be made for how businesses will need 5G if the technology is going to make money for the telecoms industry.
“Every industry is going to use 5G differently,” says Mo Katibeh, chief marketing officer at AT&T Business.
In the first instance, it is a simple upgrade on what we have now; providing shopping malls, large offices and industrial plants with superfast Wi-fi for phones, point-of-sale devices and even untethered augmented-reality and virtual-reality headsets. 5G could also take digital signage in retail stores into a new dimension of augmented reality.
“Digital signage will logically evolve into virtual mirrors equipped with cameras, so in real time you can clothe yourself in different fashions and hundreds of combinations of things,” says Katibeh. “Coupled with machine learning and AI, these virtual mirrors could use geo-rendering to size you perfectly, and even do predictive analytics based on your weight and height to recommend what would look good on you.”
That means more sales for stores, and, for shoppers, clothes that fit and look good without having to constantly go back to the changing room. Crucially, all this would happen instantly.
“The promise of 5G isn’t just download speeds, but ultra-low latency,” explains Katibeh.
At present, 4G phones takes about 50 milliseconds to link to the cloud and swap information, whereas 5G will reduce that to under 1 millisecond; that’s quicker than the human eye can process images. The digital landscape we live in now is going to be instant.
“The camera technology is already there,” says Katibeh. “We just need the connectivity.”
For now, 5G is mostly talk, but at next year’s Mobile World Congress, expect a 5G frenzy.