5 things to know about what's next for wireless internet

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Technology companies are hyping 5G internet connectivity, but you’ll want to check your expectations.

SAN FRANCISCO — The fifth generation of wireless connectivity is coming. And to hear people talk about 5G, it will change everything.

“5G will make every industry and every part of our lives better,” said Meredith Attwell Baker, president of the wireless trade group CTIA, during the opening keynote at the Mobile World Congress Americas trade show last week. Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai was on the same wavelength, saying ”The transition from 4G to 5G promises to be more than just incremental change.”

It’s true that 5G’s combination of extremely fast downloads and near-instant responsiveness will make a big difference, but you’ll also need to check your expectations for the next generation of wireless connectivity. These are the five things you should know about 5G.

It’s coming in 2019

You won’t see 5G compatibility listed on any new phones this year. But that shouldn’t bug you for an instant, since we most likely won’t see mobile 5G service sold in the U.S. until 2019. And widespread availability will take longer.

AT&T (T), which is testing early versions of 5G in a handful of cities, says it will bring 5G to the market “as early as late 2018.” But everybody else is talking 2019 or later.

T-Mobile (TMUS) announced ambitious plans for 5G in May. “We’ll expect all this to begin in 2019 and target 2020 for a full nationwide rollout,” chief technology officer Neville Ray wrote.

Verizon (VZ) has 5G tests active or on the way in 11 markets, but it’s not planning to sell 5G any earlier. (Verizon is the parent company of Yahoo Finance.) Sprint (S), meanwhile, says it’s aiming for “late 2019.”

Why the holdup? For one thing, there is no 5G standard yet. “The 3GPP standard hasn’t been ratified for the radio,” AT&T chief technology officer Andre Fuetsch said, referring to the industry’s standards-setting body.

That group now aims to nail down the most important technical specs ahead of the formal conclusion of the 5G standards project next September. Only then can manufacturers such as Qualcomm (QCOM) finalize chipset designs and start building hardware that supports the technology.

You’ll see it in fixed wireless first

The boxy test 5G hardware on display at MWCA would not fit in any mobile device–not even a 1980s-vintage car phone. That’s one reason why you’re likely to see the first 5G services offered as “fixed wireless” — connectivity for a home or office, a scenario in which we’re already used to setting up a boxy device that distributes broadband to our computers via WiFi. But in this case, it would be a 5G receiver instead of a cable modem.

A prototype of a 5G internet base station.

“5G will become the fixed wireless solution very early,” said Tami Erwin, Verizon’s executive vice president of operations.  

LTE can already deliver download speeds competitive with many cable and fiber-optic connections, but its uploads and “latency” — the time a single packet of data needs to cross the network — don’t match up. 5G should change that, allowing subscribers to partake fully in services that involve uploading lots of data (think cloud storage or photo sharing) and demand responsive connections (virtual reality and online gaming).

“You have to make sure you’re close to competing with the download speeds, the upload speeds and the low latency, and 5G gets us much closer to that equation,” said Chris Pearson, president of the trade group 5G Americas.

It would also help if wireless carriers began selling 5G fixed wireless without data caps.

It will require many more cell sites

5G’s potential to expand broadband access has a lot of people excited — the FCC chairman among them.

But this standard will span many more frequencies than today’s LTE, and the higher-frequency bands among them won’t reach as far.  

“It’s coverage versus capacity,” said Miguel Arranz, who heads up ZTE’s radio engineering. One millimeter-wave 5G transmitter on display behind him, for example, could hit 30 gigabits per second but only cover a third of a mile.

In comparison, LTE has a theoretical range limit of 62 miles (though in practice cell sites cluster together more closely) and today offers downloads that can top 30 megabits per second nationwide, with work underway to reach gigabit (1,000 megabits) speeds.

Wireless carriers already encounter obstacles building towers — at one MWCA panel, Sprint government-affairs vice president Charles McKee cited unidentified cities that wanted 5% of all the money the company made inside their boundaries. They will get a lot worse under 5G.

And those 5G cell sites will require fiber-optic connections to minimize latency. In other words, this fix for insufficient fiber broadband needs its own fiber broadband.

5G won’t replace 4G the way 4G replaced 3G

Even 5G supporters don’t expect the standard to displace today’s 4G LTE technology in the way that 4G made 3G obsolete overnight.

“It will not be an immediate upgrade to all wireless networks,” said Verizon’s Erwin. LTE, which if you’ll recall is short for “Long Term Evolution,” continues to get faster and cover more of the country. She called it “the product that our customers are going to continue to use for many years.”

During the MWCA keynote, Mats Granryd, general director of the international wireless-service organization GSMA, noted that LTE has yet to reach many people worldwide. He forecast that it would account for 84% of total connections by 2020, while 5G would reach the 50% mark five years later.

Don’t expect 6G anytime soon

It’s barely been six years since 4G LTE’s debut in the U.S., which might make you nervous about how long 5G will stay on the stage. You shouldn’t be.

“5G is going to be a much longer cycle,” said Pearson of 5G Americas, which was called 4G Americas until renaming itself in February of 2016. “I don’t expect to change to 6G Americas for a very long time.”

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.