At the January 2017 CES show in Las Vegas, Steve Mollenkopf, CEO of Qualcomm, offered his thoughts about what we might expect from 5G networks. “5G,” he announced, “will have an impact similar to the introduction of electricity or the car, affecting entire economies and benefitting entire societies.” In 2018, already late with the rollout, many principals confidently claimed 2019 as the year of 5G, just as AI and machine learning had reserved 2018 for their revolution.
As 2019 dawned, most expected the technology to be much further along. 4G had already marked its first decade as TeliaSonera won notice in 2009 as the first telecom operator to launch 4G commercially in the Scandinavian capitals of Stockholm and Oslo. The first American rollout followed mid-year 2010, when Sprint released its first WiMAX smartphone in the United States, the HTC Evo 4G. Following Telia’s pioneering in the Nordic countries, the initial standards for fifth-generation cellular wireless (5G) were set and in place at the end of 2017. Today, we now wait to see if 2020 will be the year of 5G.
Since past is prologue, it might be helpful to look back at the progress and stumbles in 2019 for an idea of what still needs to be done. We’ll look at two markers: a Wall Street Journal report in the middle of the year (July) and a CNET online December evaluation for 5G in 2019.
WSJ VERDICT: NOT YET
Tech journalist Joanna Stern went on a four-city 5G test run in July 2019, and she produced a piece for the Wall Street Journal that summed it all up in a headline: “We Tested 5G Across America. It’s Crazy Fast—and a Hot Mess.”
In the weeks just before her trip, leading telecoms were launching 5G in Chicago (Sprint), Las Vegas (AT&T), New York City (T-Mobile), Denver, and Providence, R.I. (both Verizon). On the horizon were a reported total 30 U.S. cities to be served by the end of the year. Stern’s trip took her to Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
She did almost 120 tests with various phones, walking more than 12 city miles, and her report explained, “As my findings show, 5G is absolutely not ready for you. But like any brand new network technology, it provides a glimpse of the future.”
When she did get a signal to measure, the 5G connections were very, very fast. The first successful speed test in downtown Denver produced 1,800 megabits-per-second from Verizon. “That’s 52 times the average 4G network download speed in the U.S, according to internet speed-test company Ookla,” she wrote.
But she soon discovered, “With the exception of Sprint, these speeds can be found only in small pockets around town.” The readings were taken outdoors because a second problem emerged “when I stepped inside, the 5G signal vanished. That’s the other thing about millimeter waves: Most can’t penetrate walls or other hard obstacles.”
As your read on, the list just grows. “AT&T’s 5GE isn’t 5G.” Connections depended on cooler weather. In Atlanta, 90° on the streets made service unsustainable, although another type of 5G called “mid-band” didn’t have an overheating problem.
The itinerant journalist’s conclusion for mid-year in the U.S.: “5G doesn’t do much right now.”
CNET IN DECEMBER
Six months later, Shara Tibken, writing for cnet.com on December 7, 2019, also wasn’t very optimistic in her feature titled 5G in 2019 Underwhelmed.
She begins with another Groundhog-Day-like proclamation from Qualcomm. This time the exuberance is from the Qualcomm president, Cristiano Amon, at the third-annual Snapdragon Tech Summit in Hawaii. Amon promised, “2020 is the year 5G goes mainstream.” Not only was it going to be different, Amon also told the crowd present that he expected more than 200 million 5G smartphones would ship in 2020. Could be even more, he speculated, when you consider China.
Tibken’s overview of the networks shows little difference from Stern’s perspective six months earlier. “The biggest drawbacks of 5G today,” she explained, “are spotty coverage in relatively few cities and expensive, limited devices. If you bought one of the 5G phones available early in the year, it won’t be able to tap into the newer, broader 5G networks that AT&T and T-Mobile are just now launching. And 4G connections are getting close to some early 5G speeds.”
She then catalogs the promises of network providers for 2020.
What’s new in the CNET analysis derives from the fact that Tibken was covering the Snapdragon Tech Summit, and, as you might expect, there was much talk centered around the chipmaker’s new Snapdragon 865 processor for high-end smartphones and the new 5G handsets and modems. Kevin Petersen, senior vice president of AT&T Mobility said at the conference, “As we round the corner into ’20, we’re seeing actual deployments of broadscale leverage, and we’re starting to see the device ecosystem get started.”
Both T-Mobile and AT&T told CNET at the conference that they each would launch at least 15 5G phones in 2020. And one of those devices would likely be the iPhone, which they expect to get 5G connectivity with Qualcomm’s modem later in the year. And there was further good news about a line of less expensive 5G devices. Mark McDiarmid, T-Mobile senior vice president of radio network engineering said in an interview, “We expect we’ll be down at the midrange price point at some point during the [next] year.” These devices will use the Snapdragon 765 chip in HMD smartphone devices.
HMD chief product officer Juho Sarvikas told the conference, “What this mobile platform allows us to do is get to half the price of 5G devices today.” Qualcomm’s Amon added that there are Chinese companies planning to launch 5G smartphones that have the Snapdragon 765 at a cost of about $284 (2,000 RMB).
So, is there a chance that the new decade will usher in the promised Year of 5G in January? Tempering President Amon’s enthusiasm for 2020, Tibken cited the opinion of Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi who offered her informed take on it all: “I don’t think it’s going to be mainstream. But by the end of 2020, we will have a better feel for what living in a 5G world would look like.”