The first wave of 5G phones are starting to get announced, but if today’s Qualcomm news is anything to go by, the real point of entry for the next-generation network won’t come until early 2020, when Qualcomm ships its first processor with a 5G modem built in.
That’s because so far, the first 5G phones are all a bit of a pieced-together affair. Currently, Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 855 chipset has an integrated LTE modem, and not one of the company’s 5G modems. That means that basically every 5G phone featuring a Snapdragon 855 — a list that includes the Galaxy S10 5G, Galaxy Fold, LG V50, ZTE Axon 10 Pro 5G, and OnePlus’ 5G phone — also has to have a separate 5G modem, which takes up more space inside the phone and drains more power.
Qualcomm’s next flagship processor will avoid those issues. The modem’s integration will negate some of the disadvantages of 5G, like higher power demand, with a more efficient chip and save more space internally for a larger battery. It could allow for 5G phones that are as thin and light as the LTE phones we currently have now, which is an appealing prospect (assuming 5G battery life can hold up to current standards on LTE, which is admittedly a big assumption).
But Qualcomm integrating 5G into its flagship chipset would have a far more important effect. Assuming that the 5G-integrated chip will be Qualcomm’s only flagship processor, and not just a 5G variant of an LTE chip, then in one fell swoop, Qualcomm could make 5G compatibility the default function for nearly every single Android flagship on the market.
Right now, 5G is an add-on that has to be considered as a separate decision in the design process for companies that rely on Qualcomm’s chips, like Samsung and Sony. The new integrated chipset could make 5G support the default from the start, greatly increasing the chance that phone manufacturers will take advantage of the new network.
And Qualcomm making that shift is a big deal. Outside of a few edge cases, like Apple, Huawei, and some of Samsung’s international phones, basically every major smartphone is powered by Qualcomm chips with Qualcomm modems. By offering 5G out of the box for every Android flagship, Qualcomm could do more to push 5G adoption forward than any individual launch from carriers or phone makers ever could.
The bad news is that we’re still a long way away from seeing phones with this next processor. The first phones with an LTE-only Snapdragon 855 are just getting announced at Mobile World Congress, and we still have yet to hear a price or release date for a single phone using a Qualcomm 5G modem. Qualcomm itself won’t have the new, 5G-integrated processor ready to give to customers until the end of the year, and the first phones with it won’t ship until the first half of 2020, meaning that in the best case scenario, we’re still a year away from the first truly mainstream 5G phones.
Still, it might be for the best. Maybe by 2020, we’ll actually have some functional 5G networks to use with those phones.