The Truth About 5G: What's Coming

(and What's Not) in 2018

After years of hype about gigabit speeds that will let you download full-length movies in mere seconds, 5G is finally becoming a reality in 2018. Or at least, we'll get our first taste of it..

The fifth generation of connectivity, pithily called 5G, will be ready for prime time later this year. Software is being tested, hardware is in the works, and carriers are readying their plans to deploy 5G in select markets by the end of 2018.

The new networking standard is not just about faster smartphones. Higher speeds and lower latency will also make new experiences possible in augmented and virtual reality, connected cars and the smart home — any realm where machines need to talk to each other constantly and without lag.

In the brave new 5G world, you will definitely need to buy a new phone, but it won't be all about handsets.

"5G will be the post-smartphone era," said Robert J. Topol, Intel's general manager for 5G business and technology. "Phones are the first place to launch because [they're] such an anchor in our lives from a connectivity standpoint."

Here's what you can expect as 5G rolls out later this year:

5 5G Fast Facts

  • 5G standard was completed in June.

  • Qualcomm just made its mmWave antenna modules available to its smartphone partners, which means 5G-capable smartphones that use Qualcomm's antennas will be able to use millimeter-wave frequencies. That means much faster speeds.

  • The first 5G-capable phones will start to appear early next year. The first 5G devices will be mobile hotspots, which will roll out toward the end of 2018.

  • Motorola is gunning to be the first handset maker with a 5G-ready phone, announcing the Moto Z3alongside a 5G Moto Mod. The $480 phone, which is exclusive to Verizon, will be out Aug. 16 but the Moto Mod won't launch until 2019, when Verizon's 5G network is actually functional.

  • Not to be outdone, LG announced Aug. 14 that it plans to make the first true 5G phone, with 5G connectivity fully integrated instead of baked into an add-on accessory (ahem, Motorola). The device will be out in the first half of 2019 as a Sprint exclusive.

Where 5G Is Now

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project, the standards body that writes the rules for wireless connectivity, agreed in December on the first specification for 5G. The Non-Standalone Specification of 5G New Radio standard covers 600 and 700 MHz bands and the 50 GHz millimeter-wave end of the spectrum. That agreement paved the way for hardware makers to start developing handsets with 5G modems inside. But the non-standalone specification applies to 5G developed with LTE as an anchor. 

In June, the standards body completed the rules for standalone 5G. Now network operators can start fine-tuning their software using equipment that complies with the completed standard.

"[The standard] really sets [the stage] for interoperable systems and field trials with operators in 2018, and it starts the clock for being able to build standards-compliant devices heading toward the last half of 2018 and early 2019 launches,” said Qualcomm's Matt Branda, who oversees 5G marketing.

It's important to note that 5G devices have to play nice with existing LTE networks, because in areas where 5G coverage will be spotty or nonexistent, the new radios will be optimized for available LTE connections. That's why the non-standalone specification came down first.

Companies such as Qualcomm and Intel are working on 5G modems that will fit into phones, cars, smart-home devices and other device forms that have yet to take shape. Those radios are in the midst of testing to make sure they're interoperable with network operators and infrastructure companies.

"We've done dozens of trials already," Intel's Topol said. "Now as we get closer to the commercial silicon, that's where the OEM announcements [from hardware makers] will start to come in." 

For its part, Qualcomm has said that 19 network operators around the globe plan to use its X50 5G modem in their 5G trials; that figure includes all the major U.S. carriers. Eighteen device makers, including Sony, ZTE and LG, plan to use the X50 in their 5G products, according to Qualcomm. Qualcomm also unveiled a new LTE modem — the X24 — which is also expected to be included on early 5G devices, as its maximum download speed of 2 Gbps should help those phones keep a fast connection even when 5G networks aren't available. In July, Qualcomm made its new millimeter-wave antennas available to smartphone makers, which will enable next-gen phones to tap into higher frequencies that deliver the faster speeds that are the calling card of 5G.

How Wireless Carriers Are Preparing

The earliest 5G deployments will use fixed wireless, similar to the wireless broadband you use at home. Intel showed off some of that functionality at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, allowing viewers at the games to take advantage of so-called "time-slice technology" to pick a vantage point to watch the action. That tech is powered by a 5G fixed wireless connection. Intel announced at Mobile World Congress that it will partner with Japanese telecom operator NTT Docomo to turn Tokyo into a smart city for the 2020 Olympics. The two companies are already laying the groundwork to create those experiences. 5G will be widely available by then, but Intel has ambitious plans in place, including 360-degree virtual reality demonstrations in 8K resolution.

Demonstrations aside, now that the final specification has been released, we expect to see more announcements from wireless carriers on 5G availability in the U.S. 

AT&T has already announced that it will launch 5G wireless service in 12 cities by the end of the year, though the company declined to offer more details on which markets will see 5G rollout and when. Verizon is bringing fixed 5G to homes in Sacramento, California, and four additional markets later this year, but hasn't announced plans for mobile 5G. 

"There are network operators that will be very aggressive with their plans. There might not be a lot of devices ready but it's important that the networks be ready." 
— Robert J. Topol, Intel

As for Sprint, it's eyeing an early 2019 rollout on millimeter wave spectrum, though the carrier is currently building out its network capacity and boosting LTE speeds with massive MIMO, or the use of multiple transmit and receive antennas at a base station to increase capacity. That will lay the groundwork for 5G deployment in 2019. Sprint will roll out 5G in nine markets, including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington DC, in the first half of 2019.

T-Mobile is also aiming for a 2019 launch followed by nationwide 5G coverage in 2020 after winning an auction for 600 MHz spectrum last summer. T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray says the company is already rolling out 5G-ready 600 MHz equipment, so that when 5G is ready to go, T-Mobile will only have to push out a software upgrade. At Mobile World Congress, Ray announced that T-Mobile is laying down 5G-ready equipment in 30 cities in 2018, starting first in New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas.

But Ray also cautioned that the race to get 5G connectivity to customers in 2018 is a "pointless race," because the first 5G-ready smartphones won't be ready until early 2019. Two 5G phones have already been announced. Motorola's Verizon-exclusive Moto Z3 is a 4G phone with a 5G-capable accessory called a Moto Mod. The phone is available to buy now, but its 5G accessory won't go on sale until Verizon's 5G network lights up in 2019. LG is planning to release a fully integrated 5G phone, no add-ons required, in the first half of 2019 on Sprint's network. LG says its device will be in line with other flagship smartphones in terms of price, battery life, size, weight and performance.

Next-generation wireless networks require more infrastructure, such as small cells placed both indoors and out that transmit millimeter waves, which travel short distances. That's why T-Mobile is focused on laying down equipment this year. Sprint's use of massive MIMO is another way to build out a next-gen network. Sprint announced at MWC that customers in Chicago, Dallas and LA will start to see faster speeds thanks to massive MIMO network rollout that began in April. Later this year, Sprint subscribers in Atlanta, Houston and Washington D.C. will also see what Sprint calls "5G-like capabilities."

Massive MIMO cell sites provide up to 10 times the capacity of LTE, but Sprint's 2018 plans are a bridge between LTE and 5G. Sprint customers will not see 5G connectivity this year.

But infrastructure is key to ensuring 5G coverage is expansive, efficient, consistent and plays well with existing LTE networks.

"There are network operators that will be very aggressive with their plans," Intel's Topol said. "There might not be a lot of devices ready but it's important that the networks be ready before the devices. Intel chipsets will start to be ready for handset manufacturers and others to go and build around."

What About Phones?

After chip makers and carriers make their moves, phone manufacturers will get their turn. That means new phones are on the way.

"It's our intent to have an initial device by the end of the year. We'll continue to add to that device portfolio in [2019] and beyond." 
— Gordon Mansfield, AT&T

The specification is complete. Now, 5G networks will roll out and Intel and Qualcomm will have chipsets ready to go. But you won't see a smartphone with a 5G radio inside this year.

"5G will be a new device," said Gordon Mansfield, AT&T's vice president of RAN and device design. "Your existing device does not have the radio in it that supports the 5G new radio capabilities. It's our intent to have an initial device by the end of the year. We'll continue to add to that device portfolio in [2019] and beyond."

That device won't be a phone, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said during the company's fourth-quarter earnings call on Jan. 31. Instead, AT&T will release a mobile hotspot-like device called a puck that will deliver faster speeds and lower latency in portable modem form.

MORE: Best Smartphones on the Market Now

That means the phone you buy this year, even now that the 5G standard has been completed, won't be compatible with 5G networks. That's something to think about if you're planning to splurge on a pricey handset.

Motorola is preparing to be one of the first out of the gate with a 5G phone. The company announced Aug. 2 that its Moto Z3, which is exclusive to Verizon, will eventually have a companion 5G Moto Mod accessory when Verizon's 5G network is built out in 2019. The $480 Z3 will launch Aug. 16, well before the 5G Moto Mod.

5G Beyond Phones

Being able to take advantage of truly unlimited data is a smartphone user's dream, but everyone I've talked to about 5G is more excited about the potential unlocked by next-generation wireless. From smart-home security to self-driving cars, all the internet-connected devices in your life will be able to talk to each other at lightning-fast speeds with reduced latency. 

“5G is one of those heralds, along with artificial intelligence, of this coming data age,” said Steve Koenig, senior director of market research for the Consumer Technology Association. “Self-driving vehicles are emblematic of this data age, because with one single task, driving, you have massive amounts of data coming from the vehicle itself, [and] a variety of sensors are collecting a lot of information to model its environment as it moves. It’s pulling in data from other vehicles about road conditions down the lane. It could be weather information, but also connected infrastructure. There’s lots of data behind that task, which is why we need the capacity and lower latency.”

And 5G could finally make augmented- and virtual-reality headsets more palatable for mainstream users. This is notable because companies such as Apple are reportedly developing AR glasses to complement — or perhaps even replace — smartphones. 5G would make that possible.

Ericsson illustrated at this year's Mobile World Congress how smart glasses could become faster and lighter with a 5G connection, because instead of being weighed down with components, the glasses could rely on external hardware for processing power.

I watched through the glasses as digital balls cascaded down physical shelves and onto the ground, marveling at how the virtual world was mapped on top of the physical one. But more importantly was how seamless the experience was, as the balls tumbled from the shelf to the floor.

Augmented reality glasses and virtual reality headsets haven’t yet cracked the mainstream, but tech companies are betting that these devices will eventually replace our smartphones. With 5G, that could actually happen. 

Verizon and Nokia recently tested the transmission of live interactive virtual reality and 4K video streaming over a 5G connection outdoors using Verizon's millimeter-wave spectrum and found that they were able to reach throughput speeds of 1.8 Gbps with a latency of about 1.5 millisecond. Basically, the latency is so small as to be unnoticeable, which will make VR a much more comfortable and engaging experience.

But don't get too excited. There's still a lot of work to be done in the meantime, including interoperability trials to make sure the radios play nicely with hardware and infrastructure build-out so 5G coverage isn't concentrated solely in high-density cities.