The need for speed: Mobile phone industry poised to launch 5G
Friday, March 09, 2018
In most years at Mobile World Congress, the launch of a new Samsung Galaxy smartphone would be the biggest story by far.
This year, the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S9 was undoubtedly the biggest hardware debut of the mobile phone world's largest trade show held annually in Barcelona, but it delivered largely incremental changes on last year's Galaxy S8 — something that's often been the case with new smartphone launches in recent years.
Furthermore, Samsung’s launch of the S9 was so hotly anticipated that it crowded out possible debuts from less-popular Samsung rivals like LG, Huawei, HTC and Motorola. In fact, the second-most talked about "new" phone at MWC was the kitschy "banana phone" Nokia 8110 that relaunches a line from the 1990s.
Yet MWC 2018 was anything but sleepy due to the hype surrounding new, faster 5G wireless networks, many of which will come to the United States before the end of the year. These new networks have the strong possibility of changing the mobile world for both business and leisure applications due to their incredibly fast speeds compared to today's standard technology.
5G technology is, aptly, the successor technology to current 4G LTE networks, conveying the fifth generation of wireless standards. In the U.S., 4G technology has been online since late 2010 and early 2011 on various popular carriers, and Sprint debuted the first 4G phone in March 2010.
The best iPhone available at the end of 2010 was the iPhone 4, with a 3.5-inch screen, a 5-megapixel camera and 512 MB of RAM. Today, the iPhone X has a 5.8-inch screen a 12-megapixel camera and 3 GB of RAM. And the iPhone X does has that capability in a phone that's thinner and only about an ounce heavier.
But as smartphones' computing power and visuals have improved in the past seven years, the network standards have remained at the 4G level.
So while the four major mobile carriers in the U.S. — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — all announced varying 5G plans at MWC or earlier in 2018, there's a sense that it's about time for the new networks to come online, since most everything else in the mobile world has evolved and improved since 4G rollouts began.
If you want to be among the first to experience 5G, it’s going to help to be in a huge media market — or in Texas.
Sprint is already referring to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. as "5G-ready cities." T-Mobile, in a news release announcing that 30 cities would get 5G infrastructure this year, said "customers in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas will be first to experience it." AT&T said Dallas; Atlanta; and curiously, Waco, Texas, would be the first three markets for 5G, among a dozen in 2018.
Excitement must be tempered, however, as even the top 2018 flagship phones from Apple, Samsung and other smartphone manufacturers won't be 5G-ready quite yet. The first 5G phones likely won't come to market until early 2019, with 5G mobile hotspots possibly available late this year.
But once those phones are available and online with 5G, the whole world of mobile data is likely to experience a shakeup.
Currently, 4G availability in the U.S. is greater than 90 percent, and average data speeds are at 16.31 Mbps — well below world leaders like South Korea, Singapore and the Netherlands, but an improvement on speeds in the fourth quarter of 2017. If that average speed was a home broadband connection, it would be below the FCC's current broadband speed standard.
Recent Qualcomm tests of 5G equipment, publicized in Barcelona at MWC, showed 5G speeds as much as 20 times faster than 4G predecessors and browsing latency improved sevenfold. Additionally, 10th percentile 5G speeds were still clocked at 100 Mbps, suggesting that even spotty 5G coverage could have speeds greater than the average U.S. household broadband connection.
Carriers have warned that much like the 3G to 4G transition, there will be moments of frustration as networks struggle with getting 5G standards and radio waves up to par everywhere.
However, once 5G is fully operational and has wide coverage across the country — something that is likely at least a couple of years away — the ability to do business on the go and download/stream high-bandwidth data will become incredibly easy.
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