Qualcomm, Samsung, and Verizon revealed a new milestone on their quest toward commercial 5G just as the Snapdragon Tech Summit 2018 started on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Tuesday. The three technology giants successfully tested a 5G New Radio connection enabled by 400MHz of bandwidth in the 28GHz band which allowed for a data throughput rate that surpassed 1.7Gbps. The test itself was performed in a highly controlled environment and despite the fact that the next generation of mobile connectivity is one of the main focus points of Qualcomm’s newest summit, tech demos that allow for any kind of interactivity are still missing.
The Maui conference hence doesn’t allow journalists to go hands-on with the experimental gear that’s there just for viewing, raising questions about how close to commercializing these technologies the companies in question actually are. Ericsson, another one of Qualcomm’s partners that’s been pursuing 5G solutions for years now, revealed its 39GHz solution showed at the Hawaiian conference only provides data speeds of up to 140Mbps, which is well below the threshold that even 4G LTE can already deliver in real-world use cases in certain areas. Ericsson officials claim the said limitations exist primarily due to the fact they set up their experimental networks in a matter of mere days and used only 100MHz worth of spectrum, whereas commercial applications should utilize no less than 400MHz of bandwidth, mmWave or otherwise.
It’s not about speeds, says the industry fixated on speeds
AT&T, another company attending the Maui summit, acknowledged the current shortcomings but vowed to deliver multi-gigabit speeds once its 5G service actually rolls out to consumers. Whether that scenario is feasible remains to be seen as even Netgear, the San Jose-based manufacturer of AT&T’s first 5G “puck” (essentially a hotspot), says multi-gigabit throughput may not be available in all 5G launch markets from day one. While Samsung, Qualcomm, and Verizon did attach the aforementioned 1.7Gbps figure to their newly announced data connection test, none of the players in the wireless segment are still talking about the exact speeds consumers will be able to expect once they start using the next generation of mobile networks. In theory, 5G should easily break the 1Gbps in the real world seeing how LTE technologies are already able to do so under certain circumstances but everyone from network equipment makers and device manufacturers to carriers is adamant that Qualcomm’s summit is a launch vehicle for potential 5G use cases, not any concrete performance discussions.
The test organized by Verizon, Samsung, and Qualcomm hence wasn’t about experiencing 1.7Gbps throughput speeds but was meant to showcase how the three companies are planning to handle the period “between Gs” wherein consumers won’t be able to count on consistent 5G coverage and will often found themselves in areas where LTE will be the only viable option. In those scenarios, having a solution that’s capable of switching between the two technologies in a seamless manner will be of paramount importance and it’s what the industry is currently focused on, at least in regards to systems showcased at this year’s edition of Qualcomm’s summit. The solution showcased by Samsung, Verizon, and Qualcomm hence relied on a non-standalone standard, i.e. one that entails modified LTE equipment with dual-connectivity support.
Background: The newly confirmed demonstration is being described as yet another step on the road toward national 5G coverage, though between-G solutions have been in development for many years now and similar systems have already been demonstrated in the past, including technologies from the very same actors. Samsung itself will be extremely involved in the stateside 5G rollout seeing how it already supports Verizon’s experimental fixed wireless access solution called 5G Home and will be providing the largest wireless carrier in the country with one 5G-enabled handset in the first half of 2019. The South Korean tech juggernaut will be launching two such devices on AT&T’s network as well; one will be out this spring, whereas the second one is planned to hit the market in summer, the telecom giant announced earlier today.
While 5G is advertised as the central piece of Qualcomm’s latest and greatest mobile chip — the Snapdragon 855 — which also debuted at the Maui summit, the SoC’s support for the next generation of mobile connectivity will actually be optional so that device manufacturers opting for a wait-and-see approach to 5G will still be able to cut some costs in production and possibly pass those savings on to consumers. The Snapdragon 855 will hence ship with the Snapdragon X24 LTE modem by default, whereas the 5G-ready X50 will be offered as an optional upgrade. Qualcomm is eager to point out that it will be the first semiconductor company whose chips will be powering consumer-grade products compatible with 5G, though it remains to be seen how those will perform in everyday use; previous transitions to new wireless technologies often resulted in phones with poor battery life and heat dissipation which also exhibited consistency issues. Besides Samsung, LG, Huawei, Honor, and OnePlus already confirmed plans to release at least one 5G-enabled Android smartphone in 2019, though all of them remain vague about their plans to do so.
Impact: The fact that Qualcomm’s largest tech summit of the year and the last such gathering before the 5G rollout in the U.S. truly begins is not in any sense focused on network speeds suggests consumer-grade use cases of the new technology are still somewhat away. While all major carriers in the country already vowed to commence 5G deployment by 2019 — AT&T and Verizon are already doing so this year — it may not be until the second half of 2020 that consumers will truly be able to enjoy widespread 5G coverage on smartphones and tablets that rival today’s devices in terms of battery life and performance consistency. In the meantime, the 5G race will continue being a battle of industry firsts, not all of which are actually particularly relevant in the grander scheme of things. As for first-generation 5G handsets, all of them are expected to be carrier exclusives until industry-wide interoperability testing is concluded.