2019 may be a big year for smart­phones, wire­less

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - TECH - Bob O'Don­nell

MAUI, Hawaii – Af­ter a rel­a­tively ho­hum 2018 for mo­bile phones, 2019 is look­ing to be gang­buster year for smart­phones and the whole wire­less in­dus­try.

In ad­di­tion to the launch of fold­able phones, next year also prom­ises to see the de­but of the world’s first de­vices that can con­nect to next-gen­er­a­tion 5G wire­less net­works.

Cur­rent smart­phones use 4G LTE net­works to send and re­ceive all the pho­tos, videos, texts, so­cial me­dia up­dates, emails, phone calls and other types of in­for­ma­tion that we con­sume on our trusty de­vices. While 4G net­works have got­ten faster and more re­li­able since their de­but in 2009, tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tions con­tinue to move for­ward and the en­tire in­dus­try is on the verge of a once-a-decade gen­er­a­tional shift to the next “G” – hence 5G.

And 5G prom­ises to bring not just faster con­nec­tions to the mo­bile tele­com net­works of­fered by AT&T, Ver­i­zon, T-Mo­bile and Sprint – al­though that’s an im­por­tant part of it – but the abil­ity to cre­ate new types of ex­pe­ri­ences.

From more im­mer­sive vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­ity ap­pli­ca­tions, to telemedicine and au­tonomous cars, 5G is ex­pected to un­leash an ex­cit­ing ar­ray of new prod­ucts and ser­vices, many of which haven’t even been in­vented yet. (For point of ref­er­ence, it took the de­but of 4G net­works to en­able cloud-based ser­vices like Uber, Lyft, Spo­tify, Airbnb and oth­ers that quickly be­came com­mon­place, but weren’t con­ceived of prior to the last wire­less gen­er­a­tion shift from 3G.)

In or­der for 5G to hap­pen, quite a few dif­fer­ent pieces need to fall into place. The ma­jor tele­com car­ri­ers are in the process of up­grad­ing and en­hanc­ing their net­works to sup­port the 5G stan­dards, with the help of tele­com in­fra­struc­ture equip­ment sup­pli­ers such as Eric­s­son, Nokia and Sam­sung.

Plus, smart­phone and other de­vice mak­ers such as Sam­sung, LG, Mo­torola, and Google have to build de­vices that can “talk” or con­nect to these new net­works. These com­pa­nies, in turn, are re­liant on ma­jor semi­con­duc­tor com­pa­nies, like Qual­comm and In­tel, to de­sign, build and re­lease the chips nec­es­sary to en­able these con­nec­tions.

At their Snap­dragon Tech Sum­mit in Hawaii, Qual­comm took a ma­jor step to­ward mak­ing 5G-ca­pa­ble smart­phones real by un­veil­ing the first ma­jor chip specif­i­cally de­signed to power them, the Snap­dragon 855. Used by all of the ma­jor An­droid-based smart­phone ven­dors (but specif­i­cally not by Ap­ple), Snap­dragon chips pro­vide the pro­cess­ing and con­nec­tiv­ity re­quire­ments at the heart of mod­ern smart­phones.

For the first gen­er­a­tion of 5G phones – such as a yet-to-be-named Sam­sung de­vice an­nounced by AT&T and Ver­i­zon at the event and ex­pected to be avail­able in the first half of 2019 – Qual­comm is com­bin­ing their Snap­dragon 855 with a com­pan­ion X50 mo­dem chip to do the com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the net­work.

The rea­son this mat­ters is that 4G and 5G net­works are go­ing to co-ex­ist for some time, and the 855 pro­vides the 4G con­nec­tions while the X50 adds the 5G sup­port for the lo­ca­tions where 5G ser­vice will be avail­able.

The real-world ben­e­fits of 5G will be down­load speeds up to 10 times faster than many cur­rent phones (mea­sured in gi­ga­bits per sec­ond in­stead of hun­dreds of megabits per sec­ond). This al­lows you to do things like down­load high-res­o­lu­tion movies in just a few min­utes be­fore you board a flight.

An­other ben­e­fit of 5G is low la­tency, or de­lays, which can make a big dif­fer­ence in re­spon­sive­ness for real-time ap­pli­ca­tions like gam­ing. These con­nec­tion speed en­hance­ments are in ad­di­tion to other im­prove­ments en­abled by the 855 chip, in ar­eas such as photo qual­ity and 3D graph­ics. On top of that, the Snap­dragon 855 of­fers sci­ence fic­tion-like func­tions en­abled by new ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence-pow­ered fea­tures, such as be­ing able to point your phone’s cam­era at an ob­ject and have it au­to­mat­i­cally rec­og­nize what it is.

One no­table com­pany that’s ex­pected to be miss­ing from the 5G tran­si­tion in 2019 is Ap­ple. In part be­cause of le­gal dis­putes with Qual­comm, Ap­ple uses modems made by In­tel in their lat­est iPhone lines. In­tel’s lat­est 5G mo­dem an­nounce­ments made it clear that de­vices pow­ered by its 5G modems won’t be avail­able un­til 2020.

Fi­nal de­tails around pric­ing for both 5G phones and the data plans that sup­port them have yet to be re­leased and there is some con­cern that ini­tially, at least, they could be pricey. As with any ma­jor tech­nol­ogy tran­si­tion, how­ever, there’s al­ways an ea­ger crowd of tech en­thu­si­asts who show lit­tle con­cern for pric­ing, and that’s likely to be the case for 5G as well.

As with 4G net­works, the full ef­fect of what 5G can en­able won’t be clearly known when it and the de­vices that use the new net­work are first launched. What is clear, how­ever, is that there’s an ex­cit­ing set of smart­phone in­no­va­tions com­ing in 2019, and the ini­tial roll­out of 5G should give us a glimpse into an ex­cit­ing tech­no­log­i­cal fu­ture.

USA TO­DAY colum­nist Bob O'Don­nell is the pres­i­dent and chief an­a­lyst of TECH­nal­y­sis Re­search, a mar­ket re­search and con­sult­ing firm that pro­vides strate­gic con­sult­ing and mar­ket re­search ser­vices to the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try and pro­fes­sional fi­nan­cial com­mu­nity. His clients are ma­jor tech­nol­ogy firms in­clud­ing Mi­crosoft, HP, Dell, and In­tel. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter @bo­bodtech.


5G will make pos­si­ble new ex­pe­ri­ences not yet en­vi­sioned, as 4G did.

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