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The biggest challenge 5G faces is making sure everything works

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5G, 5G, 5 gee.

To most people, 5G is merely the successor to 4G LTE — the next generation of cellular connectivity for your phone. 

And yes, that’s what 5G will be for most people as carriers worldwide begin deploying the high-speed wireless connectivity starting in 2019.

But that’s also a serious mischaracterization of 5G because it isn’t just faster cellular service that’ll enable you to stream high-resolution videos, games, and VR. 

5G is virtually a complete overhaul of connectivity. It will be fast enough to replace home WiFi and as such will enable devices to truly always remain connected no matter where you are. 5G also has much higher bandwidth to support more devices that can connect simultaneously with less or no latency.

At Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Technology Summit in Maui, Hawaii, the world’s largest mobile chipmaker spent the majority of its Day One keynote championing this seemingly perfect new world of connectedness and the many ways 5G will transform everything from everyday life to businesses.

It’s an idealistic vision and one that could very well become a reality, but the biggest challenge 5G faces isn’t getting people to understand jargon like “mmWave” or “Sub-6 GHz,” but making sure that it actually works as promised.

“We expect as [5G] technology gets deployed, it’ll enrich people’s lives,” said Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon. “[5G] has the potential to be one of the largest technology transitions.”

“It will be such a basic infrastructure for society that will be able to connect everything around us,” Amon continued later in the keynote. “[5G] will also lead the creation of new industries and services that have yet to be imagined.”

Justin Denison, Samsung Electronics of America’s senior vice president of marketing for mobile, echoed a similar 5G message.

“Life will be transformed,” said Denison. “It will change the way we travel, the way we interact, the way we work.”

These kinds of keynote presentations are meant to be inspiring and optimistic, but the real story comes from the somewhat snoozier sections of the event, presented by Qualcomm’s carrier partners.

Verizon’s Chief Network Engineering Officer Nikki Palmer, AT&T’s SVP of Wireless Marketing Kevin Petersen, and EE’s Executive Adviser for 5G Fotis Koronis all hopped on stage to talk about how they’ve solved many of the technical challenges that previously held 5G deployment back.

The backbone will be 5G’s ultimate test. Will it be able to handle the many devices its spectrum and bandwidth promises? Will mmWave technology be reliable as Amon says it will be? Will devices actually be able to get the ultra-fast 5Gbps download speeds Qualcomm’s X50 5G modem promises?

Qualcomm and its partners seem to think so. 

“There’s a lot that’s happening in 5G with a lot of hard work with from partners,” Amon said before closing out the keynote. “It’s incredible to see how far we’ve come in just the last year.”

Of course, seeing is believing. 5G’s freshness will have that new-new experience, especially for early adopters, where the network hasn’t been congested. But what’ll the 5G experience be like in 2020, 2022, 2026? If it’s not as fast and reliable as Qualcomm and everyone’s making it to be, it won’t be any different than the 3G and 4G eras.

5G devices also have their own set of challenges to overcome. As Amon noted, it’s not as simple as designing a new phone and cramming a 5G modem in it.

Phone makers need to think about battery life (each new generation of faster cellular connectivity has brought reduced battery life), how 5G will fit into current and future form factors, performance, mobility, etc.

“All of these challenges have been addressed,” Amon proudly trumpeted on stage.

But I’m not convinced… yet. My sister had the original HTC Thunderbolt, the first phone to have 4G LTE, and it was not the best experience. Sure, it had fast data, but the battery died extremely fast and the thing was a brick compared to competing phones. 

Samsung’s already announced plans to release a 5G phone on Verizon in 2019, but nobody outside of the company has seen it or used it yet. 

Motorola announced a “5G-upgradeable” phone, the Moto Z3 Play, last year but to connect to 5G it’ll require a monstrous module attachment. Um… okay.

Again, I’ll believe things when I’ve seen and tried a real commercial 5G phone (not one that’s a reference design rigged to work flawlessly in a controlled lab or tech convention booth).

I’m an optimist at heart when it comes to new technologies, but because 5G is so much more than just a new device merely connecting to a faster wireless network, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be skeptic that its deployment will be smooth and and not somewhat bumpy.

I really want to see slides and infographics that depict devices all connecting harmoniously and reliably to each other, like these from the Snapdragon Summit’s keynote, become a reality…

Cars talking to cars with 5G!

Cars talking to cars with 5G!

Devices all synced to the 5G network! Yay!

Devices all synced to the 5G network! Yay!

It's finally here.. almost... soon... next year... maybe 2020... or 2021... or 2022... or later depending on where you live.

It’s finally here.. almost… soon… next year… maybe 2020… or 2021… or 2022… or later depending on where you live.

If Qualcomm and friends pull off 5G deployment without many major issues, it might become as essential to life as electricity, as Amon predicts it will be.

Problems won’t spell 5G’s doom — 5G is coming whether you’re ready for it or not — but we’ll sure as hell be waiting longer for this connected future.

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