The first application for 5G is handsets with superfast download. That’s not where 5G will end up - the true benefits of 5G are only likely to be fully realised by industrial applications, much of which are dependent on mmWave, dedicated small cells, enhanced ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (eURLLC) and private networks that will come with the second or third phases of 5G roll-out. But for now, traditional smartphones lead adoption.
There’s no harm in gaining the kudos of being the first to launch a 5G phone, which EE did in May, but subsequent 5G network launches have been pretty low-key affairs, perhaps because the coverage of 5G is as yet somewhat limited. Even towns and cities that are theoretically covered fall short of blanket coverage, while the use of 3.4GHz means that many areas are predominantly marked for outdoor usage.
Availability of unlimited data is being used as an enticement to buy a 5G phone by removing concerns that high-speed data consumes traditional data allowances in a matter of minutes. Yet such availability of unlimited data is now available to any customer on all the existing networks.
Compromise to be first out of the blocks
The key problem is that there are simply too few 5G devices on the market, especially affordable ones, and the initial batch of devices released is very much ‘1.0’ with limited support for the 5G bands that will be available for use in the UK in the future.
Some early 5G handsets have also been compromised to accommodate a separate 5G modem chip and antennas. An example is Huawei’s Mate 20 X 5G, which has a reduced battery capacity over its non-5G sibling.
Networks are crying out for more affordable phones. Currently there are limited options available from the likes of Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung and Huawei. Apple is yet to offer a 5G device at all, having been let down by Intel’s lacklustre 5G development process, which prompted Apple to purchase Intel’s failing smartphone modem business to speed things up. However, there are rumours that it is working with Qualcomm to offer a temporary 5G solution in 2020.
Qualcomm and Huawei each intend to offer mid-range chipsets with integrated 5G at the start of next year, while MediaTek’s absence in the 5G space is set to change with the introduction of the Helio M70 System On Chip (SoC) with 5G. Samsung now has its own Exynos 990 SoC with integrated 5G.
Surprisingly, Qualcomm’s next-gen Snapdragon 865 chipset retains a separate modem. This allows Qualcomm to update modem functionality on devices released later in the year, but comes at a likely cost of higher power consumption and a second chip for manufacturers to try and accommodate.
These new chipsets will support more 5G bands (in 2020, Ofcom will auction part of the 700MHz spectrum, to improve indoor and rural coverage), as well as both standalone and non-standalone 5G.
This will reduce the phone-makers’ trend of producing handset variants for different 5G bands in use around the world, and will lead to production of more global handsets that will be especially important for foreign travellers.
The new phones will be an easier sell to consumers who are less tolerant of first- generation shortfalls than are early adopters who may be more keen on bragging rights.
So far, only Huawei’s Mate 30 Pro 5G, which went on sale in November, is ready for 700 MHz. However, the trade war between China and the US that saw the removal of Google Mobile Services and therefore programs such as Google Maps, the Play store, Chrome and YouTube, resulted in no ranging of the handset by any European network.
With Qualcomm’s mid-range Snapdragon 765G SoC, with integrated 5G, we will see many new and affordable 5G handsets from the likes of Xiaomi, Nokia, Motorola, Realme, Redmi, Vivo and others in 2020. Mobile World Congress will be swimming in 5G devices.
Consumers weigh up their handset options
Later in 2020, there is likely to be a change to the current practice of offering a 4G and 5G variant of a new phone. 5G will become standard on high-end phones, and this move will filter down to entry-level models later.
Oppo wil have will have an affordable 5G phone ready for market soon.
According to staff in high-street stores, mainstream consumers are not yet ready to stump up for a 5G handset. This could be down to coverage, the fact that 4G offers ample speeds for most handset usage, or even concerns over the safety of 5G. These fears may be unfounded but are still very much a discussion point just about everywhere you look. In speed tests carried out in 5G-enabled areas, the difference between 4G and 5G is sometimes insignificant, while the low latency required for online gaming won’t be a thing until 5G is no longer combined with 4G.
It will be the phones that can operate exclusively on 5G that will take things to the next level, and the industry has perhaps jumped the gun a little by pushing all the benefits of 5G that aren’t quite achievable on the first-generation devices.
Nevertheless, 5G offers greater speeds than 4G in congested areas, which will be particularly important for 5G broadband solutions, so there are tangible benefits for early adopters. Just don’t expect 5G to truly gain traction until there are cheaper devices than the current offerings on sale, as well as more places for customers to actually use them.
This article was first published by CWJ Press as part of a series of UK5G Magazine specials comissioned by DCMS. You can access the digital version here.
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