Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
While 5G started to arrive this year, you really had to seek out the next-generation experience: First, you had to find a carrier that covered part of your city, and then you had to buy one of the handful of phones that supported the new network technology.
Why it matters: Next year, the script will flip, as 5G support will be baked into a wide range of devices and networks expand to cover more of the country. Every new generation of cellular technology has an awkward initial phase, but 5G is actually poised to arrive more smoothly than its predecessors.
Driving the news:
- Qualcomm announced Tuesday that its next high-end and mid-range chips will have standard 5G support. That guarantees that many of next year's devices — and nearly all flagship phones — will support 5G.
- T-Mobile announced the launch of its nationwide 5G network Monday, albeit using lower frequency spectrum that allows for broad coverage at the expense of the high speeds possible with millimeter-wave technology. (T-Mobile, like other carriers, is also slowly launching millimeter-wave 5G in parts of large cities.)
- Even those whose 5G networks rely entirely on short-range millimeter wave will be offering service in more cities next year. Verizon's 5G, for example, is in parts of 18 cities now, with plans to have 30 by year's end and a steady stream through 2020.
"2020 is a pivotal year," AT&T senior VP Kevin Petersen said in an interview, noting the company expects to launch around 15 devices stretching from high-end phones to mid-range devices.
Wild card: Apple is the big question mark. It's generally assumed that it settled a long-running legal fight with Qualcomm earlier this year in part to ensure next year's iPhone lineup can offer 5G, but nothing is certain. Comments from Qualcomm's president, though, seem to suggest Apple is on track to have 5G in 2020.
The big picture: The onus will still be on the industry to persuade consumers that they need 5G. The early case will probably focus on faster speeds, especially for video streaming and downloading movies.
- It's worth noting that people are keeping their phones longer — providing incentive for consumers in the market for a phone next year to buy a 5G device even if their preferred carrier doesn't yet offer service.
- 5G is also not just about phones. Other uses will also start rolling out next year, including laptops and VR devices with 5G, as well as 5G-based private networks for corporations.
- "If we fast forward three years and the big application for 5G is faster internet on smartphones we will have missed the boat," Verizon chief product development officer Nicki Palmer told Axios.
Disclosure: Reporting for this item took place at Qualcomm's Snapdragon Summit in Maui, where I moderated a session on Wednesday. Qualcomm paid for my travel-related expenses.