Even if you’re a daily smartphone user, you might not have heard that the big carriers are launching next-generation “5G” cellular networks this year, or that the last two months have been packed with “5G” and “4.5G” news. I cover these topics for VentureBeat, and as we’re less than two weeks away from the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, this struck me as the right time to provide a big picture explanation of what you can expect over the next year or two.
Why should you care about 5G?
One year from now, your smartphone is going to get faster in one of three ways: You’re either going to upgrade to a 5G phone, upgrade to a 4.5G phone, or keep using a 4G phone on a network shared with fewer users. If you buy a 5G phone, expect peak speeds nearing 5 Gigabits per second — enough to download a 4K movie in under four minutes — versus 1-2Gbps on newly-purchased 4.5G phones, and 0.1Gbps on current 4G phones, the latter only because old 4G networks will free up and get faster as people switch to 5G phones.
But 5G is about a lot more than phones. In the foreseeable future, your car will have its own 5G connection, both to provide entertainment and to communicate with local traffic systems. Your workplace will have 5G to let remote operators and computers control as much as possible. And your city will use 5G for everything from parking sensors to security systems. Public utilities, farms, and health care providers will all rely heavily on cellular networks, too. Seriously, 5G will be everywhere.
Doesn’t that make 5G potentially dangerous?
Yes. Imagine what could happen if a foreign country wanted to wage war, and could remotely seize control of cars, factories, cities, and communications devices? That’s the threat the U.S. government is combatting by freezing out Chinese wireless companies Huawei and ZTE: 5G offers increased security, unless the companies making the hardware compromise it with government-accessible backdoors.
Another potential concern — but one that science thus far suggests is harmless — is radiation. 5G is based upon various types of radio waves, all of which are believed to be “non-ionizing,” or not harmful to human life. But concerns about radiation convinced the European capital Brussels to restrict cellular emissions a decade ago, and continue to fuel restriction-minded folks in California, as well. Most scientists and engineers consider cellular safety to be a fairly settled issue, but like 4G before it, the world has never seen anything close to the increased quantity of radio activity 5G is expected to bring, so questions will remain.
When is 5G coming to my country?
Originally, 5G was expected to begin rolling out in 2020, but that changed two months ago when 3GPP — the global cellular standards group — approved the first 5G standard six months ahead of schedule. Now 5G is on the fast track in several countries: Super-early, limited U.S. rollouts are expected later in 2018, while many other countries are planning at least limited rollouts in 2019.
Europe remains on track to have one 5G city per country by 2020, Australia will start to have 5G by early 2019, and several countries in Asia have offered dates ranging from 2018 to 2020. Little has been said about African or South American 5G rollouts. However, luck and other factors may lead your city to be earlier rather than later to the party. Individual cities in the U.S., Canada, Spain, and South Korea have already been selected as live 5G testbeds, and carriers are already testing 5G services in certain homes and businesses there. Many more are likely to be announced at or after MWC.
Why can’t we just skip 4.5G?
The short answer is that 4.5G is a simple way of describing late-stage 4G technologies. Carriers are building those technologies into their latest cell towers and hardware for two reasons: First, so that there’s a faster 4G network for early 5G phones to fall back on, and second, so people who want to keep using 4G devices can continue to see speed improvements.
You can skip buying a 4.5G phone if you want. But it may turn out that late 4.5G phones offer a better combination of “great speed and solid battery life” than early 5G phones, which may ship with “insane speed and so-so battery life.” We’ll know when the first 4.5G and 5G phones begin to ship what the compromises are.
How should I plan my purchasing around 5G?
If you’re thinking of upgrading phones or tablets with cellular connections, you could either buy in right away or hold off for a while, depending on your needs. Unless you’re in one of the lucky early cities, there mightn’t be a 5G network where you live for a couple of years, so upgrading now to something great will keep you happy until your neighborhood gets 5G coverage. If you can hold off for a full year, and you’re not an Apple fan, you’ll probably be able to choose between early 5G phones and very late 4.5G phones using recently demonstrated Qualcomm chips. Nineteen manufacturers are already working on phones using Qualcomm’s X50 5G chips, with releases planned for 2019.
Apple users could be in for a longer wait. The company reportedly is only sourcing modems for late 2018 iPhones from Intel, which isn’t expected to have its first 5G modems available until mid-2019. This could change, but it seems unlikely to move significantly, and dealing exclusively with Intel could push Apple’s rollout of 5G devices into late 2019 or 2020.
What about 5G cars and workplaces? Don’t expect them until 2020 at the earliest, but quite possibly later than that. If you want a portable 5G wireless hotspot to use for work purposes, however, AT&T plans to make them available in the U.S. later this year. You might even be able to replace your home broadband service with Verizon 5G by year’s end. Keep your eyes on our 5G news coverage for announcements of city-, country-, and carrier-specific rollouts.