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5G is coming and it’s going to have a massive impact on almost every facet of how we use technology, with faster speeds and lower latency theoretically opening up huge new frontiers in everything from smartphones to self-driving cars.
But the future of mobile networks isn’t here yet. And with something as complex as 5G, dozens of companies, carriers, and device manufacturers all need to work together for this kind of rollout to happen. Here’s where everything stands right now, though:
What Is 5G?
On a basic level, 5G is the fifth generation of cellular networking. It’s what comes after our current 4G / LTE networks, much in the same way that LTE was a radical shift forward from 3G. Think of how much the way we used and interacted with our phones shifted when 3G data was first introduced, or how things changed again when high-speed LTE data came around. That’s the kind of change we’re looking at with 5G.
But on a more technical level, “5G” is an agreed upon set of standards defined by the International Telecommunication Union (the ITU) and the 3GPP, who work together with hardware companies and carriers to define what exactly a 5G network actually is.
And over the past few months, we’ve actually reached two general definitions for those: the non-standalone 5G New Radio network, which (as the name implies) is built off of existing LTE networks and hardware, and standalone 5G NR networks, which allows for new deployments of 5G in places that didn’t necessarily have that existing infrastructure.
The non-standalone standard was finished in December 2017, while the standalone standard was finalized in June 2018. Having extra time to work on it and being built on existing infrastructure means that when we do see the first real 5G networks start to roll out in 2019, they’ll likely be based on that first.
From a technical perspective, what makes a 5G network a 5G network is a little more complex than just “it’s faster.” There’s a variety of pieces toward reaching those speeds — use of technologies like carrier aggregation, multiple antenna arrays (MIMO and Massive MIMO), new, higher frequency spectrum bands, and of course, the most talked about aspect: millimeter wave frequencies, which are dramatically higher than the ones that we currently use for cellular data and can offer much faster speeds, but have a far shorter range and ability to pass through walls and buildings.
What all this means is that the 5G specification provides goalposts for carriers to reach with their networks and a set of standardized technologies and tools to get there. How it reaches you — the consumers — is up to the carriers on how they’ll be implementing 5G, and which of these various technologies and spectrum bands they’ll be using to do it.
That brings us to the most important part of the state of 5G: what the major carriers are actually doing to bring about these next-gen networks. Here’s where everyone stands.
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AT&T: AT&T started off its 5G network on the wrong foot with its “5G Evolution” network in 2017 — which wasn’t actually 5G at all, despite the name. But the company did promise in January to roll out real, 3GPP-standard based 5G in a dozen markets by the end of 2018.
So far, AT&T has announced six of the 12: Dallas, Atlanta, Waco, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Oklahoma City. There aren’t a lot of details on what parts of the spectrum AT&T is planning to use beyond the fact that it will utilize both “mmWave to provide mobile 5G first,” followed by additional spectrum bands in the future.
Verizon: Verizon is working on a different angle than most with its 5G rollout, focusing first on a broadband service launching in Indianapolis, Houston, Sacramento, and Los Angeles in 2018, before following that up with a mobile 5G service in 2019.
That gives Verizon an edge in some areas — barring any issues, it’ll be the first 5G service to launch. But the real prize is true mobile 5G, for which Verizon hasn’t shared as much of its plans yet.
That said, Verizon has already announced at least one phone that will work with its mobile 5G network when it does launch: the Motorola Moto Z3, which will get a 5G Moto Mod accessory sometime next year.
T-Mobile: T-Mobile first announced plans in 2017 to begin rolling out its 5G network in 2019, with a full nationwide rollout by 2020. As of February of this year, though, the company has accelerated those plans: it’s already starting to develop its 5G network this year and plans to be in 30 cities by the end of 2018, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Las Vegas. The company also recently signed a $3.5 billion deal with Nokia to provide 5G technology, software, and services as it works to build out that network.
From a technological perspective, T-Mobile is planning on utilizing both its 600 MHz chunk of low-band spectrum and 28 GHz millimeter wave portions of the spectrum for its 5G network.
Sprint: Sprint is also working on its own 5G network, targeting the same late 2019 date as almost every other carrier. Sprint is targeting the 2.5GHz band of spectrum for its network, and it has already started building out Massive MIMO antennas — technology that serves as a precursor to 5G that can be upgraded later on — in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.
Sprint has also made the most noise about actual consumer 5G hardware, promising a 5G phone with LG in the first half of next year and 5G PCs with Intel. All these plans may change though, depending on how the T-Mobile merger shakes out.
When it comes to actual phones with 5G, we’re still pretty early in the game. Most companies are focused on releasing phones that you’ll be able to buy this year, but there are a few developments on the 5G front already — and we’ll likely start to hear even more in 2019 at events like CES and Mobile World Congress at the beginning of next year, so check back here soon for more updates.
Qualcomm: Qualcomm doesn’t actually make phones, but it’s a hugely important piece of the 5G puzzle, given that the company provides modem and processor chipsets for a massive chunk of the market. To that end, the company is already working on its Snapdragon X50 Modem for 5G, with major companies like Nokia / HMD, Sony, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, HTC, LG, Asus, ZTE, Sharp, and Fujitsu all on board.
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Additionally, Qualcomm recently announced its QTM052 mmWave antennas specifically for phones, which could be a key part of getting ultra-fast 5G internet on our mobile devices.
Intel: Intel has struggled of late as it comes to making headway in the mobile market — most prominently, the company’s modems appear in some iPhone models (and possibly all of this year’s models) — but they’ve tended to perform worse than their Qualcomm counterparts. But 5G may offer a fresh chance to turn things around, with Intel already announcing its first 5G modem for phones, cars, drones, and other connected devices, along with a partnership with Microsoft, Dell, HP, and Lenovo to build 5G laptops.
Xiaomi: Xiaomi is already starting to tease its upcoming Mi Mix 3 flagship, and product management director Donovan Sung has already confirmed that the bezel-less sliding phone will include 5G support whenever it does launch, despite the fact that there aren’t actually any 5G networks up and running yet. (It’s also not clear what chipset the Mi Mix 3 is using for its 5G support yet, although, Xiaomi is also one of the companies that have partnered with Qualcomm).
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Samsung: Samsung also hasn’t announced a 5G phone yet, but it’s got the next best thing: its new Exynos 5100 modem, which Samsung says is fully compatible with the 3GPP’s 5G standard. Included is support for both the sub-6GHz and mmWave portions of the electromagnetic spectrums, as well as legacy networks like 2G, 3G, and 4G LTE — all in a single chip. Now, all we need is a phone that’ll use it.
Huawei: Huawei makes its own processors and modems, and it’s not missing out on 5G, either. The company announced its Balong 5G01 chipset based on the 3GPP standards at MWC earlier this year. And at Mobile World Congress Shanghai, it announced both a 5G-ready Kirin chip for release sometime in 2019 and a 5G smartphone set for June 2019, although there are not a lot of details yet on either of those.
Motorola: Motorola is the closest to having actually announced a 5G phone — sort of. Technically, the Moto Z3 doesn’t support 5G yet, but Motorola is promising that it’ll get support for Verizon’s forthcoming 5G network sometime in early 2019 with a Moto Mod accessory.
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LG: LG has announced that it’ll be releasing a 5G phone sometime in the first half of 2019 that will work with Sprint’s network, but that’s about all we’ve got to go on so far. Given that LG was listed as one of Qualcomm’s 5G partners using the chip maker’s Snapdragon X50 5G NR modems, it seems likely it’ll show up in LG’s phone.
Apple: Notably missing in all of this is Apple. As one of the world’s preeminent smartphone companies, whatever side of the 5G line Apple ends up on will almost certainly have massive ramifications for the rest of the industry. But for now, the company has remained characteristically tight-lipped as to its 5G plans. But if past history is anything to go by, its likely the Cupertino company will set the first rounds out, waiting for things like battery life and network support to improve before it enters the 5G fray, much like it did with the iPhone 5 and LTE support the last time around.
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