Ever since the calendar flipped to 2018, 5G has started to feel a lot closer.
We’re now just two years away from when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) plans to finalize 5G standards. But if telecommunications companies and smartphone-makers are to be believed, we won’t even have to wait that long.
We’re less than a year from when U.S. carriers have said they will roll out pre-standard commercial 5G service, and less than a month from the splashy 5G-ish demos that South Korea’s major operators have long promised for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Last week at CES in Las Vegas, it must have seemed to many show-goers, surrounded by bleeping, blinking gadgets, that 5G can’t come soon enough. During panels and keynotes, industry and government employees shared what they believe could be the technology’s most transformative features, and how its global rollout is likely to unfold.
Here are a few interesting 5G nuggets that speakers and panelists shared this year:
5G smartphones are coming in 2019
ZTE’s CEO told Bloomberg News at CES that the company plans to sell 5G-enabled smartphones in the U.S. toward the end of 2018 or by early 2019. Separately, Cristiano Amon, the president of Qualcomm, said he expected 5G-enabled smartphones and other devices to be ready by early 2019.
“We’re basically working so that by early 2019, you’ll be able to have flagship smartphones on the shelf, available for consumers,” Amon said. “We want to start the transition to 5G.”
But a smartphone without a network is just an expensive chunk of metal. On the operator side, Verizon said earlier this month that it would launch fixed wireless 5G service (in which signals move from one stationary point to another) in Sacramento, Calif., later this year. And AT&T swore it would have mobile 5G ready to go in a dozen cities by year’s end.
What does this mean for consumers? So far, not much. If you buy a new ZTE phone and happen to live in one of the 12 cities that AT&T has on its radar, maybe you’ll have access to 5G-like service sooner than most. But even that much isn’t entirely clear, since all 5G devices and networks are still pre-standard.
The switch to 5G will be very fast
Once 5G is here, carriers and customers will quickly transition to it, promised panelists from Qualcomm, Baidu, and Verizon. The telecom and mobile industries adopted each new generation of cellular technology faster than its predecessor: 4G was quicker to take off than 3G, and these experts expect the rollout of 5G to be faster still.
Amon of Qualcomm feels particularly confident because carriers have enthusiastically integrated Gigabit LTE into existing networks—a sort of baby step toward 5G. A Gigabit LTE network can deliver a theoretical peak data throughput of 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) to any smartphone connected to it (though actual speeds may vary). It does this through a suite of wireless technologies including: 4x4 MIMO, which is an array with eight antennas; 256-QAM, a modulation scheme that alters more properties of a radio wave to pack more bits onto it; as well as aggregating unlicensed or shared spectrum, partly through Licensed Assistance Access (LAA).
These capabilities will allow Gigabit LTE to act as a base layer that 5G will add to, Amon said. Carriers can build 5G services on top of Gigabit LTE, and feel confident that customers will not experience a dramatic drop in service if they must switch back to the LTE network for any reason.
By his count, more than 43 operators worldwide have built or are building Gigabit LTE networks. And there are already a slew of Android devices that support it with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X16 and X20 LTE modems, including the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note8.
The talk of Gigabit LTE underscores another point made clear at CES: 4G isn’t going away. Instead, it will be the backup network and fundamental base layer from which early 5G services rise. “Of course, 4G will be there worldwide for a very long time,” said Hans Vestberg, Verizon’s chief technology officer.
Verizon is pleased with the performance of millimeter waves
Last year, Verizon tested high-frequency millimeter waves for fixed wireless service, which it is now preparing to roll out commercially in Sacramento. Since millimeter waves show greater signal loss than traditional radio waves over distances and when sent through objects like trees or windows, the company originally had a lot of questions about how well this scheme would work in the real world.
At CES, Vestberg, who switched to Verizon last April after a stint at Ericsson, spoke enthusiastically about the performance of millimeter waves in Verizon’s trials. He says says throughput is “enormous,” citing rates of 1 Gbps at a range of up to 600 meters (2,000 feet). That bodes well for Verizon’s plans to beam Internet service through the air and into people’s homes and offices.
“I think that the millimeter waves in our tests, which started long before I got there, have proven to be surprisingly better than we thought,” he said.
But small cells—another key 5G technology—could face challenges ahead. On a separate panel, Brendan Carr, a commissioner of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, said he feared regulatory issues could be a bottleneck that slows the installation of these miniature base stations.
“Right now, we have relatively few cell sites out there—somewhere around 300,000—and we need to go to over a million in real short order here,” he said, adding that carriers have told him they’re worried that they don’t have the labor force required to install all these new cells.
Low latency is everyone’s favorite performance requirement
The ITU has already written performance requirements for future 5G networks (which it calls IMT-2020), saying they will deliver latency of less than 1 millisecond and user data rates of 100 megabits per second (mbps). Of these key parameters, industry insiders seemed most excited about the promise that low latency holds for future applications.
Amon at Qualcomm said having such a short round-trip delay for data will open up new possibilities for social networks, introducing “social presence” and allowing people to engage in real-time social interactions in a digital space.
Qi Lu, chief operator officer of Baidu, said low latency is critical for the highly-anticipated arrival of self-driving cars. “My experience is that once you reduce latency, you just open up opportunities for all sorts of applications,” he said.
A lot more will happen in the cloud
Low latency allows more of the computation required to run a smartphone or analyze the data it’s collecting to happen in the cloud, Amon said. With latency of under a millisecond, “it’s going to be like having no difference, whether the data is going to be in the cloud or with you,” he said.
Amon also foresees memory itself shifting off smartphones and into the cloud—a trend that has already began with companies such as Apple offering cloud storage for photos. In the future, there may be no need to list gigabytes of storage in smartphone advertisements. And Amon says this could bring costs down for manufacturers and make smartphones cheaper for customers.
The impact of this shift to the cloud from on-phone memory and computing could be huge, not just for the mobile industry but for cloud computing services, which could see an explosion in demand with the arrival of 5G.
It will also change the way that networks are built, since a 5G smartphone must always be able to quickly access the computing power it needs. Vestberg says Verizon has a new network architecture dubbed the Intelligent Edge to reduce latency for this purpose.
Through all of these CES discussions, it became clear that 5G will not necessarily be built with the average consumer in mind. Just as the human eye can only process so many pixels on a TV screen, most people won’t notice the difference between a few milliseconds of latency. Instead, the greatest promise for 5G could rest with other industries that find clever ways to take advantage of these new powerful networks.