Author(s): Geoff Blaber
The mobile industry is no stranger to claims of 5G "firsts". An endless stream of press releases over the past few months declaring increasingly spurious milestones has left the market somewhat numb, despite the significance and impact of 5G technology.
The opening day of Qualcomm's Snapdragon Tech Summit 2018 came as a relief, as years of development finally manifested themselves in tangible progress. The announcements made in Maui, Hawaii by Qualcomm and partners including AT&T, EE, Ericsson, Inseego, Motorola, Netgear, Samsung, Telstra and Verizon form a major landmark. Mobile 5G is here.
The deployment by AT&T and Verizon of two 5G networks using millimetre-wave spectrum for the event, and the live demonstration of a millimetre-wave connection to Motorola's Moto Z3 handset and a Samsung prototype smartphone powered by Qualcomm's X50 modem are the culmination of years of hard work and industry collaboration. Millimetre wave has gone from a technology that many commentators said was impossible to integrate into a mobile device to a commercial reality that offers gigabit speeds, low latency, much-needed fresh capacity and a startling jump in performance.
Convincing consumers of the benefits of 5G won't be an easy task, and it's inevitable that the initial business case will be based more on the need for new capacity for existing applications like mobile video, than clear line of sight into what comes next. However, seeing the technology is believing. I've heard endless keynote speeches and read countless press releases about the promise that 5G holds, but having experienced the technology, I can say that it's real and will pave the way for new applications in the enterprise and consumer segments as network operators build out coverage.
Every major transition to a new network generation has been accompanied by the "killer app" discussion. This is inherently difficult because you can't accurately predict future uses no matter how much you gaze at a crystal ball. What's important with 5G is that it delivers new capacity that's badly needed today, while bringing game-changing characteristics including low latency, high throughput and lower cost per bit. And crucially, it's able to achieve this with the flexibility to serve a huge diversity of applications that place vastly differing demands on the network.
Applications in the near, medium and long term are all distinct and need various updates to core and radio access network. We're at the start of a journey, one that requires the same degree of faith in the mantra of "build it and they will come" that characterized 3G and 4G. The wealth of disruptive new businesses that appeared in the 4G era is proof that, so long as the network has flexibility, new cases will emerge.
This doesn't mean that 2019 will mark the seamless introduction of 5G. Marketing the benefits of the technology will be difficult while operators build out coverage, and promotion based on speed is fraught with challenges linked to coverage and contrasting approaches to deployment. However, Qualcomm's event has underlined widespread commitment, with over 20 manufacturers and 20 carriers working to deliver networks and products in 2019: Samsung has announced devices for AT&T and Verizon in the first half of the year, Motorola showed off a 5G Moto Mod for its Z3 phone, and Netgear and Inseego both displayed their mobile 5G routers for AT&T and Verizon. One Plus also unveiled a strategic partnership with Qualcomm and EE to bring an exclusive 5G device to market in the UK in 2019.
I fully expect Mobile World Congress 2019 to play host to a broad swathe of device announcements. The speed of network deployment that CCS Insight predicts in China and the US, coupled with accelerating efforts in Europe, mean that market ramp-up should rival, if not exceed, that of 4G.
What the industry has achieved to date is a remarkable feat of collaboration, and Qualcomm's event is testament to that. Nonetheless, 5G will be a complex journey spanning deployment, ongoing upgrades to core and radio access network, development of business cases and user adoption. Qualcomm has given a tantalizing glimpse of what's to come, and this is just the start.
A version of this article was first published by FierceWireless on 5 December 2018.