What To Expect From the First 5G Phones

Over the next several weeks and months, the first ‘mobile’ 5G services will be introduced by AT&T and then subsequently by the other major U.S. operators. The initial devices will be 5G mobile ‘hotspots’ (or ‘pucks’), manufactured by Netgear and inseego. But during the first half of 2019, we will also see the first 5G phones from Samsung and Motorola, with several other leading Android OEMs expected to introduce 5G phones before the end of the year. What will these phones look like, and what should we expect?

From a design standpoint, there won’t be anything earth-shattering here. Since 5G will largely be in ‘experiment’ mode, given the early days of standards-based equipment and limited initial deployments, I’m expecting the OEMs to be relatively conservative with regard to their first wave of 5G-enabled devices. These initial 5G phones will look like many premium or flagship phones sold today. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor will be lightning fast, and the phones will undoubtedly sport high-end photo and video capabilities that will help to showcase 5G in some way.

The initial 5G experience will be sort of like ‘Super Wi-Fi’, in that there will be islands of 5G coverage within a city, with the phone then defaulting to 4G LTE when not in a 5G zone. 5G will be initially be available in a handful of cities (AT&T’s list here, Sprint’s list here), and we expect the 5G-specific coverage in those cities to cover a modest footprint, initially (the operators have been very cagey about specifying the extent of initial 5G coverage). When in an area of 5G coverage, there will be a special indicator on the device, and the speed difference will be noticeable. It will be sort of like the difference between a good 4G LTE connection today (~50 Mbps) and then getting home and noticing the speed and latency lift of a super speedy home broadband service (~150 Mbps or more). That type of experience will be available on ‘islands’ of 5G coverage within cities, again sort of like a super Wi-Fi hotspot. It will work best in a stationary situation, might work when walking, and will certainly switch over to 4G when driving.

There might also be a difference in the experience depending on the operator, though hard to peg exactly because deployments will vary by operator and by market, especially in the early days. But as one generalization, expect AT&T and Verizon’s mmWave-based 5G services to be speedier than their rivals, but coverage to be most ‘hotspot’-esque. Sprint’s won’t be as fast, but coverage within a city might be more predictable. T-Mobile is going for broader coverage by focusing on 600 MHz for its initial 5G service, but the speed won’t be as dramatically different than 4G. TMO is also a bit of a wildcard, on two fronts: the uncertainty of outcome and timing of the proposed Sprint deal, which has a huge bearing on its 5G strategy; and the fact that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chip doesn’t support 600 MHz has certainly thrown T-Mobile a curve ball.

For those who recall the rollout of 4G LTE in the 2010-2012 era, there will be similarities. Even with all the hype around 5G, the 4G roadmap is pretty compelling. ‘Gigabit’ LTE is available in an increasing number of cities, as operators deploy a mix of 4×4 MIMO, carrier aggregation, 256 QAM, and LAA. The Snapdragon 855 chip, in addition to its 5G capabilities, supports 2 gigabit LTE.

Remember that for a time, AT&T and T-Mobile marketed their 3.5G (HSPA+) services as ‘4G’, as they were arguably as fast as some of the initial LTE services (especially that introduced by MetroPCS using only a 5 MHz channel). We might see that playbook repeated, since the best of 4G LTE will be nearly as good as, or even better than, early 5G, in some instances.

There are some other quirks and question marks. All voice services, at least for the next few years, will use the LTE bearer (VoLTE in most instances). There’s no great incentive to migrate to “Voice over 5G” until 5G Standalone (SA) networks are built (DISH, anyone?). Handoff is going to be another interesting matter. Although the control plane is through LTE, it will be interesting to see whether inter-carrier handovers from 5G to 4G are handled smoothly. I’m most intrigued by what the experience will be going from a high-band mmWave session to LTE. I’m hoping the process will be smoother and more seamless than the earlier days of VoLTE/Voice over Wi-Fi. As another plot-thickener, add Wi-Fi to the mix here, and there’s likely to be some quirkiness moving between 5G, LTE, and Wi-Fi.

Battery life is another question mark. The big litmus test will be how phones deal with mmWave signals. We all know that battery drain accelerates when one is further from a site and the phone has to ‘work harder’ to get a signal. New methods are being employed to account for the shorter range of mmWave-based so as not to overly affect power consumption, but this nevertheless bears watching.

5G smartphones will become more differentiated and compelling in the 2020-2021 time frame, as coverage becomes more broadly available and we see some of the capabilities of the ‘next wave’ of 5G, such as ultra-low latency, introduced. This is when we’ll see the development of apps and content that harness some of the true capabilities of 5G, such as in the AR/VR and gaming spaces. One can also expect AT&T to increasingly leverage its DTV and Warner Media assets as part of its 5G strategy, for example offering attractive video bundles, HD content, and more generous allowances for rich media that reflect the lower cost to deliver data in a 5G world.

The expected availability of a 5G from Apple in 2020 will also galvanize the developer community to create apps and content that will showcase 5G phones and help create the justification for what will likely be premium prices for those devices.

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Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.

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