BARCELONA — 5G hype is in overdrive, but you’ll likely have to wait till at least next year to experience the next generation of wireless.
And one more downer: It could cost you more.
But those caveats were in the background at this week’s Mobile World Congress, as booth after booth — and many executive demonstrations — extolled how this super-fast connectivity would change how we connect online.
How hot is the telecommunications industry for 5G? It’s the “the best wireless technological leap that’s ever happened in the history of (the business),” Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri told me.
5G “has the potential to usher in the fourth industrial revolution — it’s that massive,” said Verizon chief network officer Nicola Palmer.
And in comparing 5G to prior generations of wireless networking, AT&T chief technology officer Andre Fuetsch said that if 3G “was like a junior high school rock band,” 4G was a louder high school rock band and 5G is a full orchestra.
In the coming months and into next year and beyond we’re about to find out if such breathless comments are racing ahead of the reality.
All four major U.S. carriers are certainly gung-ho.
T-Mobile earlier this week said it would build out mobile 5G in 30 cities this year, with customers in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas to be the first to experience it once the initial 5G smartphones show up next year.
Sprint also has its eyes on mobile 5G in 2019, though its message is somewhat muddled. The nation’s fourth largest carrier referred to the six markets it will be starting in—Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.—as “5G-ready” cities, and called the underlying technology “a critical bridge to Sprint’s 5G network.”
The other largest U.S. carriers had previously announced their own deployments. AT&T plans to offer mobile 5G to customers in a dozen cities by the end of this year, including parts of Atlanta, Dallas and Waco, Texas.
And Verizon has named Sacramento as the first of five cities to get 5G this year, though its plan is to start with residential broadband, essentially an alternative to fiber or cable in the home.
Among the burning questions for consumers: How soon will it come to my neighborhood and which company or phone will get it first? Will it cost more?
When it’s coming
The first way many will experience 5G is through Verizon’s “fixed wireless” broadband solution. Mobile 5G via smartphones, tablets and computers is for the most part a 2019 story, though some “early adopter” type products may turn up sooner.
Until devices show up, “you’d be frustrating your customers by saying ‘Hey, we’ve got this network, but you can’t use it,'” says John Delaney, associate vice president for mobility at IDC Europe.
How 5G services will eventually be priced is also unknown at this point, but it’s possible you may pay more.
Speaking on a panel with Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure said that “I don’t think there’s anything wrong for you to eventually charge a higher price for faster access to your network.” While he says no decisions have been made yet, “the basic rule of economics says consumers are willing to pay more for a better service.”
How you’ll use it
5G has the potential to go well beyond some souped-up handset in your pocket or purse.
Think virtual reality or augmented reality absent the hiccups or distracting lag that on today’s systems makes some people sick. Or 4K or 8K video streams. And think drone delivery, smart robots, remote manufacturing, smart agriculture, smart grid and self-driving cars.
A ride-hailing company could rely on a 5G network to make decisions on whether to send you a car with a human driver, or perhaps a fully autonomous vehicle, says AT&T’s Fuetsch. Or the network might help you find a parking spot.
5G, coupled, say, with VR could be a big deal in education too.
“We already have distance learning, but we don’t have immersive distance learning,” Verizon’s Palmer says. Reliable VR will either bring a true classroom experience to remote students or collectively bring a classroom full of students to some far away spot or even outer space.
The technology also promises to not only help fuel the continuing explosion of always connected IoT or Internet of Things devices and appliances, but entire “smart” cities.
Ericsson reports that 2018 is the year that Internet of Things (IoT) products will surpass mobile phones as the largest category of connected devices. And by 2023, more than 30 billion devices will be connected, 20-billion of which fit the IoT category.
T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray says a 5G-enabled self-powering wireless sensor could be sewn into the seam of a kid’s jacket. “The coat never gets lost and maybe the child never gets lost wearing that coat. They’re big ideas, big concepts, and 5G is going to unleash some of those.”
So far in 2018, 5G has mostly involved trials, the most recent testbed having come at the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The technology is generally built around three pillars: faster (gigabit-plus) speeds, network capacity that Nokia’s Surl says is 20 times greater than 4G LTE, and far lower latency. That’s the term used for network responsiveness, and especially important for mission critical applications and services.
Palmer says the latency of 5G is about 100 times faster than the blink of an eye. You wouldn’t want any delay, for instance, if a physical was using 5G to perform remote surgery. Same goes if you’re monitoring your health in real time. Low latency also might help you avoid a traffic accidents in a self-driving car.
What could stop it
In the U.S. market, the general consensus is that while we’ll see some 5G deployments by the end of this year, most the action comes to consumers and businesses in 2019 with broader mainstream and industrial adoption more likely to take off in the early 2020s.
In fact, 4G LTE is not going to go away anytime soon, and LTE lays the foundation for 5G.
Pai announced at Mobile World Congress, his desire to auction off a portion of the wireless airwaves or radio spectrum critical to delivering certain aspects of 5G. He says Congress must act though by May 13.
Even after much of the network is in place there will be questions about how 5G works in scale.
“There’s always one element in wireless that you can’t predict. When you actually have millions of people in a congested city that are all on the new technology, what’s going to happen?’” asks Intel chief strategy officer Aicha Evans.
“The other thing that could trip us is fragmentation in the ecosystem,” Evans adds. “That cannot happen. We need devices to roam, we need devices to get on any network, (and) we need a certain consistency in the rate at which we’re implementing features and making sure they work with each other.”