Industry Voices—Blaber: Industry races toward 5G devices in the first half of 2019

Qulacomm Snapdragon X50 modem (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)
Qulacomm recently showed off its Snapdragon X50 modem for 5G. (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)

It was little surprise that 5G was the dominant theme at MWC 2018. 5G has made great progress in the last 12 months across all measures: standards, chipset and infrastructure development, trials, partnerships and operator commitments to deployment.

This is due in large part to 3GPP’s announcement 12 months earlier of an intermediate step in the introduction of 5G NR with the nonstandalone specification. This uses the LTE radio and core network as the basis for mobility management and coverage but adds 5G carrier(s) for higher speed data access.

While Release 15 will also contain standards for standalone operation of 5G NR, it has accelerated 5G deployment timelines and ensured that the ecosystem quickly matures beyond proprietary systems. Early deployments now have a standards-based path, which will prove critical to the health of 5G. Network rollouts will begin in the second half of 2018 before wider deployment in 2019 and volume build-outs in 2020. Crucially, industry acceleration has enabled chipset and infrastructure companies to begin standards-based silicon and hardware design. This was apparent in Barcelona and should mean that the first 5G-enabled smartphones appear in the first half of 2019.

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Despite this optimism, it is a delicate time for 5G. Expectations are high and claims of “foremost, first or fastest” are abundant. This is before consideration of the challenging economics and business case for 5G (a subject for another time). Until infrastructure and modems are functioning in real-world scenarios it’s all too easy to make bold claims.

For example, Huawei (HiSilicon) has made healthy progress in 4G LTE and can be expected to be a contender in 5G. However, the claim that its Balong 5G01 is the "world's first 3GPP 5G commercial chipset” is misleading. The modem was kept under glass on the Huawei stand, and while it showcased its 5G router to support fixed wireless deployments, demonstrations based on smartphone designs were entirely absent.

MediaTek, while not standing still, is taking a more measured approach to 5G. Its collaboration with China Mobile illustrates its commitment to deliver chips for tests in 2018, with 2019 targeted for preliminary rollout and commercial deployment in 2020. Samsung has been publicly quiet on its 5G smartphone modem plans despite announcing 5G network equipment and a home router at MWC. They also showed a mmWave tablet based on the Verizon and KT prestandard specifications (5GTF and KT-SIG). We fully expect Samsung to launch 5G Exynos-based devices in 2019.

In the wake of its KT-SIG-based 5G deployment at the Winter Olympics, Intel demonstrated 5G NR interoperability, supporting its partnership with Huawei and Deutsche Telekom which saw completion of interoperability and development testing based on Release 15 nonstandalone. Intel also showed a 2-in-1 PC concept with integrated modem running on the 28 GHz band. While the prototype had large kickstands to house the mmWave antennas, it’s an important illustration of its progress and Intel’s aim to deliver commercial 5G PCs in the second half of 2019. A 5G partnership with Spreadtrum should also accelerate both companies’ ability to address the Chinese smartphone midtier.

But Qualcomm appears to be in the driving seat when it comes to 5G modem development. It has a wide range of operator testing partnerships (announcing 19 that have selected its X50 modem for mobile 5G NR trials) with 20 manufacturers committed to launching 5G devices starting in 2019. The launch of its third-generation X24 modem underlined its 4G leadership, creating a strong basis for success in 5G.

Indeed, Qualcomm showed a working mmWave smartphone prototype and antenna module the size of a dime at MWC, a contrast to most other bulky prototypes on show. Moreover, its simulations of nonstandalone 5G NR in 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz spectrum using existing cell sites in Frankfurt and San Francisco are a much-needed illustration of what can be expected in terms of capacity, speed and latency. At 3.5 GHz, browsing speeds jumped from 56 Mbps for the median 4G user to over 490 Mbps for the median 5G user. At 28 GHz, 5G speeds were approximately 23 times faster.

5G has no shortage of hype and its pace of development has exceeded expectations. However, what’s important now is that the industry collectively focus on such real-world testing, use cases and the associated performance and benefits. As we get closer to handsets running on 5G networks in 2019, let’s focus on actuals rather than spurious theoretical claims and empty assertions of “5G firsts.”

Geoff Blaber is vice president of research for the Americas at CCS Insight. Based in California, Blaber heads CCS Insight’s Americas business and supports the range of clients located in this territory. Blaber's research focus spans a broad spectrum of mobility and technology, including the lead role in semiconductors. He is a well-known member of the analyst community and provides regular commentary to leading news organizations such as Reuters, the Financial Times and The Economist. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffblaber.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.