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5G: Super fast data, throttled by reality

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The technology for next-generation cellular data is here, but everything else is going to take a while

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Latest Consumer Technology Products On Display At CES 2017 Photo by David Becker / Getty Images

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, the concept of 5G feels almost like a cult. Everywhere you look, companies are talking about the “transformative power” of a technology that hasn’t even been standardized yet. Industry reps preach about 5G’s greatness; booths are dedicated to showcasing its miracles; and visitors attend talks with titles like “The Future of All Things and The Creation of Time.” Mobile data has never felt so religious.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as hype, but that’s not entirely fair: 5G will genuinely be transformative — when it finally gets here. Although a full technical standard has yet to be settled, industry bodies have published general benchmarks for the new technology. They cite download speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (that would be 1,000 times faster than the current US 4G average); latency of less than a millisecond; and support for a million connected devices per square kilometer. These specs won’t just let you download a full movie on your phone in seconds, but will also enable all sorts of services that need reliable, high-bandwidth data to work — everything from remote-control surgical robots to live-streaming VR footage.

Read more: What is 5G anyway? A technical explainer

But the problem we’re seeing at MWC, is that people are getting excited about the potential of 5G, but overlooking the immediate reality. Dan Bieler, a telecoms analyst with Forrester, told The Verge that hype surrounding the technology has “picked up noticeably compared with MWC 2016.”

Journalists’ inboxes have been bombarded with news of 5G trials and prototype hardware from pretty much every big tech company around. Samsung, AT&T, Ericsson, Verizon, Nokia, Sprint, Qualcomm, have all had news to share, just to name a few. But while these firms are making genuine steps forward with 5G, some of the language might make you think the technology is right on the cusp of being widely available.

5G will be used for tasks like controlling robots.
Photo by David Ramos / Getty Images

Take Samsung’s announcement of a 5G “home router” for instance. For the uninformed, this might sound like something you can buy to start getting 5G beamed straight in to your house. (The idea is that the speeds of 5G will make wired internet connections irrelevant — saving on the infrastructure costs of digging cables.) In reality, this router is a “pre-commercial” product that will be used in Samsung’s upcoming 5G trials in the US and UK. And, like other trials announced at MWC, they’re relatively small (in Verizon’s tests, for example, there’ll be around 500 participants) with no guarantee that the tech used for them will become part of the final 5G standard.

Samsung isn’t being deceptive here, but some firms at MWC were genuinely misleading. ZTE, for example, claimed they would have “the world’s first gigabit phone” at the show, capable of handling cellular speeds of up to a gigabit. What they actually had was a phone-sized display hooked up to a speed test app, with a connection based on “carrier aggregation” — bundling together a bunch of 4G signals to increase the bandwidth. So: not really a phone and not really 5G.

ZTE’s proof-of-concept “5G phone.”
Photo by ZTE

“I feel that the 5G marketing component is outweighing the business use case,” says Bieler. He says that while vendors have certainly been showing off their “technological prowess” at MWC, everything we’ve seen so far is preliminary and provisional. “The 5G standard is still emerging. Expect an evolution — not a big bang revolution. Hence, while some technologies will be used, others will be replaced by better technology.”

So if we haven’t got 5G now, when will we get it? Estimates vary, but companies are now talking about 2019 and 2020 as possible dates. Samsung’s vice president of networks strategy, Alok Shah, told The Verge that standards for the technology would probably be settled by “early 2018.” Shah said it was “amazing how quickly things are moving” and that “2019 is a very realistic date to see expanded use cases” of 5G.

Others think this is still too ambitious a schedule, and point out that historically speaking, even after new cellular tech has been standardized, there’s always a significant delay before it reaches a large number of users. “4G was launched in 2003/2004 and we reached the 1 billion 4G connections last year according to [trade body] GSMA,” Forrester analyst Thomas Husson told The Verge. At MWC this year, GSMA forecasted that there would be 1 billion 5G connections by 2025. “That's great,” said Husson, “but that's in eight years, and out of a population of more than 7 billion people, which confirms my take that it won't reach critical mass anytime soon.”

5G would let you easily live-stream 360-degree HD video for virtual reality.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Others in the industry say there’s still plenty of capacity to be squeezed out of 4G and LTE, which is currently being pushed up to gigabit speeds.“5G is not ready yet,” T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray told MWC attendees. “It’s maturing quickly, but it’s not real today.” Ray dismissed some of the 5G trials announced at MWC as “fringe” use cases, and said carriers should focus on technology that’s available right now. “LTE is where we really learn our trade and really build all the foundation blocks that are necessary for a 5G future.”

And despite the hype, excitement, and promise of 5G, as is often the case in the technology world, incremental improvements will deliver today, what revolutionary changes are promising for tomorrow. You’re not going to be buying a 5G-capable device for years, but in the meantime, the LTE connection on your current smartphone should improve thanks to technology like carrier aggregation (as ZTE is using for its gigabit “phone”) and MIMO (where the connection between your mobile device and the cellular transmitter uses multiple sets of antennas).

If everyone at MWC is waiting for 5G like it’s the second coming, it might be better to remember that with 4G, we can build the kingdom of heaven — and heavenly mobile data — here on Earth today.