5G is touted as a game-changing technology, with the ability to dramatically boost the speed and coverage of wireless networks. It can run between 10 and 100 times faster than your typical 4G cellular connection today. It’s quicker than anything you can get from a physical fiber-optic cable in your house. And latency, the amount of time between when your phone pings the network and when it responds, is faster than what Wi-Fi provides. But while 5G is real, some of the promises remain the stuff of hype.
The next-generation networks are finally live in the US and other countries around the globe, but they’re not perfect. The biggest drawbacks of 5G today are spotty coverage in relatively few cities and expensive, limited devices. If you buy one of the 5G phones available now, it will never be able to tap into the broader 5G networks of AT&T and T-Mobile. And 4G connections are getting close to some early 5G speeds.
There’s good news ahead, though. 5G is expanding to new locations quickly, and carriers are gearing up to turn on their wider networks. When a new modem hits the market late this year, it will solve many of the biggest issues with 5G devices today. There will likely be more phones on the market, and prices will eventually come down.
By 2022, 5G coverage will be far more widespread (though some remote areas may not have coverage). And since you’re holding onto your phone for longer (on average, three years instead of two), you’ll want one that can tap into that ultra-fast network when it becomes mainstream.
Like with any first-generation tech, the first devices are really expensive … and there are only a small number of people subscribing to the networks, IHS Markit analyst Wayne Lam said. But he predicted 5G could become mass market as soon as next year especially if Apple launches a 5G iPhone. The dramatic improvements in the US really hinge on one thing: Qualcomm’s next modem, the X55.
Right now, Qualcomm is the lone option for 5G handsets aimed at the US market. And that means the devices we see and the type of networks available are dependent on what technology’s embedded in its wireless chips.
Qualcomm’s current 5G modem, the X50, runs on 5G networks only. Handset makers need to buy a separate chip that can connect to older networks. Two modems means a more expensive, bulkier and battery-hogging phone. It’s part of the reason why we’ve seen 5G phones cost so much more than their 4G siblings. The Galaxy S10 5G costs $1,299, while the regular S10 starts at $900.
The X55, out later this year, will be able to run on older generations of wireless technology in addition to 5G, addressing a lot of the X50 issues. You’ll also be able to switch between carriers with the same phone something you can’t do with current 5G devices, which are tied to a specific network. With the X55, handset makers can build unlocked 5G phones, much like what’s available with 4G LTE devices.
It’s wise to hold off until the X55 becomes available since X50-powered phones can’t be upgraded to support certain radio airwaves that carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T are using to get better coverage. You’re getting a device that’s essentially hamstrung to a certain degree, Technalysis analyst Bob O’Donnell said. You won’t really get that many benefits of 5G except in very specific locations for a brief period of time.
So far, there aren’t many 5G phones available, and the ones on the market don’t come cheap.
Right now we still have the situation where we have flagships [that] have a 4G version and a 5G version, Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said. In Android when we get to the X55, the majority of flagships in all markets [that have 5G networks] are going to be 5G.
It’s possible some handset makers could launch X55-powered phones this year, but the majority of devices will be in the beginning of next year, he said. One reason he’s optimistic about 2020 is Qualcomm’s integration of the X55 capabilities into a new Snapdragon processor that comes early next year. That will make phones even cheaper and more power efficient, among other benefits.