A surge in mobile-data demand worldwide has more and more people asking when they’ll get that speedy next-generation 5G mobile service. Companies are wondering, too, since 5G has the potential to revolutionize everything from self-driving cars to robotic surgery. Mobile providers are racing to patent technologies that will form the industry standards and build working networks. Yet not all nations are embracing the push with equal vigor. And concerns about China’s ability to use 5G equipment to spy on other nations may limit its manufacturers’ ability to profit from the world’s next mobile upgrade.
1. What’s 5G?
5G simply stands for fifth-generation mobile networks or fifth-generation wireless systems. It will be the successor to 4G, the current top-of-the-line network technology first introduced commercially in 2009. 5G could end up being 100 times faster than 4G, with speeds that could reach 10 gigabits per second. This would allow a full-length high-definition movie to be downloaded in seconds. 5G will also increase transmission speed and total bandwidth, which will be needed to accommodate added demand from the “internet of things” -- the ballooning number of objects ranging from refrigerators to traffic lights to dog collars sending and receiving data.
2. Is it being tested yet?
Yes. South Korea showed off the world’s first commercial use of 5G at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. China started trials in more than a dozen major cities this year. In the U.S., Verizon Communications Inc. will offer the first consumer 5G internet and TV service in four cities -- Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, California -- beginning Oct. 1. Verizon will provide the service on pre-standardized network equipment, though the company says it will switch to standardized equipment when it becomes available. AT&T Inc. says it will be the first with a standards-based service; later this year it will test 5G via portable spots called pucks in Atlanta, Dallas, Waco, Texas, and two North Carolina cities, Charlotte and Raleigh. None of the initial real-world rollouts include 5G mobile phone service, since there will be a lack of compatible phones and 5G’s high-frequency radio signals are easily disrupted by rain and foliage. But there are signs of progress: On Sept. 6 Verizon and Nokia Oyj announced the first over-the-air transmission of data on a 5G New Radio network.
3. What else needs to be done to get full 5G service?
Plenty. First, providers need a final set of technology standards. The global body setting them, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, released the first 5G specifications in June; the next set of standards is due in 2020. (The 3GPP, a collaboration between seven telecommunications organizations, also set standards for 3G and 4G LTE mobile systems.) 5G mobile tests also need special handsets, transmission hardware and software and a system design that doesn’t interfere with 4G and 3G networks. And governments need to set aside mobile spectrum space for 5G.
4. Is this under way?
The equipment is being built. China’s Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. says it has about 50 contracts with wireless carriers to test its equipment. Nokia and Ericsson AB each have $3.5 billion contracts with T-Mobile US Inc. Some telecommunication companies are looking to join forces to provide more money and reach to develop 5G networks. In the U.S., T-Mobile and Sprint Corp. hope that the enormous costs of 5G will help encourage the U.S. government to approve their merger. Two of China’s three wireless carriers are also said to be exploring a merger.
5. What about the spectrum?
Some nations have begun to make airwaves available. South Korea finished auctioning off airways for 5G in June; it expects telecommunication providers to begin using it by the end of the year. Italy auctioned off specific spectrum on Sept. 11; the U.S. has set its 5G spectrum auction for November. But China hasn’t yet allotted any commercial licenses for 5G spectrum, clouding its rollout timeline. And some nations, like India, are holding back for now, waiting until the technology is well established and handset prices come down.
6. What’s at stake for companies?
The provider with the first working 5G network may take an immediate lead in sales and get a reputational boost. In the five years after Verizon was first to launch 4G LTE service in 2010, it increased its average share of new subscribers to 41 percent from 36 percent. Companies that have contributed patents to the 5G standards could stand to make billions of dollars in licensing fees alone. Qualcomm will get a top charge of $13 for every 5G handset sold, Ericsson’s cap is $5 per device and Nokia’s is 3 euros (about $3.50) each, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. And everyone who wants 5G mobile service will need a new phone.
7. What are the problems for China’s manufacturers?
Security questions. 5G will eventually connect many more devices than in the past, so protection from outside malign forces becomes a larger concern. Some nations are worried that Chinese 5G equipment, chips and software could be outfitted to use to spy on other nations. In August, Australia banned China’s Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp. from supplying 5G wireless equipment to its telecommunication operators, citing national security. Verizon and rival AT&T have dropped plans to sell Huawei phones. In March, U.S. President Donald Trump blocked Broadcom Ltd. from acquiring Qualcomm Inc., the biggest maker of mobile phone chips, on concerns that the merger would help give China an edge in the race to develop 5G.
8. So when will full 5G systems be in place?
It’s hard to say. T-Mobile has promised to invest $40 billion in a 5G network that’ll reach 90 percent of the U.S. population by 2024. But claims are easy to make and trials are easy to pull off. The real test will be the first field deployment serving large numbers of customers in a technically challenging urban area. No provider has yet implemented that kind of network.
(An earlier version of this story corrected the number of cities in the second answer.)
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