From autonomous cars to foldable phones, 2019 looks promising for 5G wireless technology

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.

From autonomous cars to foldable phones
From autonomous cars to foldable phones

After a relatively ho-hum 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 with it not just faster connections to the mobile telecom networks offered by AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint—although that’s certainly an important part of it—but the ability to create new types of experiences as well.

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 both 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. 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. More

By Bob O’Donnell  Special for USA TODAY