LAUREN GOODE GEAR 01.09.19 07:00 AM
WHEN VERIZON CEO Hans Vestberg delivered his keynote address at CES in Las Vegas on Tuesday evening, his speech was shaded with prophecy. 5G will change everything, he said. 5G will even power the fourth industrial revolution.
Vestberg was hardly alone in his predictions for the gains the emerging high-speed wireless technology will deliver. At this week’s CES, the annual consumer electronics fest has seen many executives and analysts making bold proclamations about 5G’s capabilities.
Look beyond the platitudes, however, and you could detect a more sober, subtle prediction from Verizon’s keynote address: Wait a year, and then we’ll see real 5G.
Telecom analysts and those within the industry say “real” 5G—that is, a network of antennas that can transmit a high-speed data signal to handsets and devices designed to receive them—won’t become a reality for at least a year. While the next-generation cellular standard holds the promise of blazing-fast speeds for consumers and businesses alike, early real-world demonstrations of 5G’s capabilities have been rare.
In some cases, those demonstrations have been misleading. As each wireless carrier boasts about how it’s going to be the first to offer a 5G network, some are developing those networks using technology that sidesteps the agreed-upon standards.
Given all the confusion, the best approach might just be to ignore the 5G hype entirely. At least, for now.
Heaven Can Wait
Verizon’s presentation at CES included marquee speakers and newsworthy demos. Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times, appeared onstage to announce a new 5G journalism lab, launched in partnership with Verizon. The lab will allow Times journalists to “get early access to 5G technology and equipment,” Thompson said.
“For the full fruit of this collaboration, you’ll have to wait until next year’s CES,” he said.
Later in the keynote, Walt Disney Studios chief technology officer, Jamie Voris, talked about the profound impact 5G will have on moviemaking. Not only will 5G let production facilities around the world connect more efficiently, it will change how movies are delivered to consumers. But even after making these grand promises, Voris echoed the week’s familiar mantra. “Hopefully you can all come back next year and we can talk about all the things we’ve created together,” he said.
THE WIRED GUIDE TO 5G
There was a drone demo; that was cool. Mariah Scott, president of Verizon’s drone operations company, Skyward, guided Vestberg as he remotely piloted a commercial drone in Los Angeles. The 5G-connected drone was pushing data at speeds of 900 megabits per second. Then there was a live video conference between Vestberg and the Houston customer who was the first person ever to access Verizon’s 5G home internet service, which launched in the fall. That was also cool, though there were some awkward moments when Vestberg and the customer, Clayton Harris, spoke over each other due to video latency.
Samsung, which hosts one of the biggest press conferences each year at CES, said it would be releasing 5G smartphones to the market in the first half of this year–providing little information about those phones beyond what it already shared at a separate event last month. Qualcomm said at CES that its chips would be powering the 30-plus 5G smartphones that will be launched in 2019 and that it was “powering the mobile ambitions of 18 of the 25 global auto manufacturers.” That was as close as we got to hearing about 5G-capable phones at CES.
Part of the reason the 5G announcements at CES have seemed so scarce: Everyone is holding their cards tight to their suit jackets until next month. In February, Samsung and other mobile heavyweights are expected to showcase their new technologies at the annual MWC industry showcase in Barcelona. “CES has really become an auto show, and in some ways a health show,” says Mark Hung, vice president of research at Gartner. “5G is really going to be the second wave, and we’ll hear more about it later this year.”
It’s understandable that both the providers of 5G and its future customers are excited about the prospects of the new technology. As WIRED’s Klint Finley explains, 5G promises to bring speeds of around 10 gigabits per second to your phone, “more than 600 times faster than the typical 4G speeds on today’s mobile phones, and 10 times faster than Google Fiber’s standard home broadband service.” That’s fast enough to download a 4K movie in seconds. Those fast speeds will also be a boon to data enterprises, health care, and autonomous vehicles.
But 5G relies on millimeter-wave signals, which can’t travel as far as those we use for today’s 4G networks, so a 5G network requires a greater number of access points. Wireless carriers would need to invest in an entirely new infrastructure in order to roll out true 5G to their customers with any degree of consistency.
Carriers looking to buy themselves the time needed to build that network have been falling back on grand promises and some muddled messaging about how their new “5G” offerings will take shape.
Verizon’s keynote came on the heels of an open letter penned by the company’s chief technology officer, Kyle Malady, headlined “When we say ‘5G’, we mean 5G.” “Verizon is making this commitment today: We won’t take an old phone and just change the software to turn the 4 in the status bar into a 5,” the letter read. Malady was taking a thinly veiled jab at wireless competitor AT&T, which recently updated the software on three Samsung and LG smartphones to show “5GE” in the phone’s status bar.
AT&T has said that the E stands for “evolution” and is supposed to signal faster speeds. However, that language doesn’t match the global 5G specification that’s been established by the 3GPP, the group that governs cellular standards.
At the same time, Verizon has been called out for using a proprietary technology in its 5G home internet service—rather than the established 5G NR (new radio) standard—and still calling its service 5G. Mike Haberman, Verizon’s vice president of network engineering, said in an interview with WIRED that “people might say it’s not standard, but frankly, it’s still delivering 5G speeds, with 5G throughput.” Haberman insisted Verizon’s early 5G technology, which was created in 2015 with support from companies like Nokia and Ericsson, has helped nudge the broader industry forward.
With CES wrapping up and MWC just six weeks away, we can expect even more companies to debut their latest 5G-ready devices in the coming months. Just keep in mind that almost all of those devices will need a 5G network to run on, and that even though those networks are supposed to offer some level of interoperability, the ones that do spring up this year are likely to be saddled with some proprietary tech. For now, it’s a good idea to ignore the hype.
Sooner or later, the mess will get cleaned up. Maybe then we’ll discover that 5G was truly a technology worth waiting for.