Cheap 5G phones and 5G for home broadband are on their way

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When 5G wireless lands in affordable smartphones that earn spots in the pockets and purses of cost-conscious customers, it may not resemble the next-generation wireless connectivity you’ve seen heralded in ads.

And that should be just fine. While 5G’s potential uses contain multitudes, the bits most relevant to everyday phone use don’t need its fastest, most fragile flavor.

The trick for phone vendors and wireless carriers will be to match that mass-market reality with the expectations they’ve raised. Just ask the company that’s done more to hype 5G than most, Qualcomm.

That San Diego firm behind almost all smartphone radio chipsets in U.S.-market smartphones continues to evangelize millimeter-wave 5G, which offers exceptional speed and capacity—but over an exceptionally limited range.

However, Qualcomm’s cheapest 5G chipsets, apparently including a low-cost series introduced Thursday at the IFA trade show to bring 5G to billions of users, don’t support millimeter wave.

And when I talked to Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon, he hedged some of his “millimeter wave is going to happen” enthusiasm to acknowledge that in the largest possible markets, slower but more scalable flavors of 5G will matter more.

“Sub-6 and DSS will be probably the technology that scales 5G globally,” he said in a half-hour, jargon-rich Microsoft Teams conversation briefly interrupted when Amon’s feed froze and then dropped (see, video-call glitches can befall anybody!).

“Sub-6” refers to frequencies below 6 GHz but above today’s 4G LTE frequencies, which offer serious speed upgrades and good range but are only in U.S. service at T-Mobile, pending moves by the government to free up and auction more midband spectrum. “DSS” means “dynamic spectrum sharing,” or letting 5G and 4G coexist in the same low-band spectrum; this allows the best possible 5G coverage.

More speed, more complications

The cost trade-offs of those two 5G flavors make a difference both for wireless networks and the phones we use on them.

“When you add millimeter wave, you have to add new cell sites, and you have to create a more dense network,” Amon says. Millimeter-wave 5G can reach maybe 1,500 feet outdoors, imposing a buildout burden Amon described in paperwork terms: “You have to get new site permits, negotiating municipality by municipality.”

Midband 5G, what most of Europe has deployed, is much easier: “You go to existing towers, especially in dense areas, and you just upgrade the equipment.”

The 4 Series chipset should allow phone vendors to ship $200 5G phones and reach a potential customer base of 3.5 billion users.

In terms of phones, millimeter-wave 5G requires new processors that, over time, Qualcomm can miniaturize. But it also requires extra components that eat up valuable space. “You have to put a bunch of new antennas into the device,” says Amon. (Amon did not discuss iPhone 5G possibilities, but my colleague Mark Sullivan reports that only the largest, highest-end 5G iPhone will support millimeter wave.)

The cheaper “6 Series” of 5G chipsets Qualcomm announced last year at IFA doesn’t support millimeter wave, and the company has yet to announce formally whether it will—although Amon says that “we do have designs [in the works] of millimeter wave in the 6 Series.”

Amon did not offer the same assurance for the 5G version of the 4 Series chipset he announced in a prerecorded IFA keynote shown Thursday, in which he said “full 5G requires millimeter wave.” Nor did he say then or in my interview that the 4 Series will include millimeter-wave support—either at its launch in 2021 or ever.

But the 4 Series chipset should still be a big deal, allowing phone vendors to ship $200 5G phones and reach a potential customer base of 3.5 billion users, according to Amon’s estimate in his keynote.

And the other flavors of 5G, especially midband, should yield a serious upgrade, even if they won’t be able to match millimeter wave’s capacity in such formerly crowded confines as stadiums and giant conventions such as IFA. (The Berlin show—Europe’s counterpart to CES—drew 245,000 visitors last year; this year, social-distancing dictates of the novel-coronavirus pandemic limited physical attendance to an exponentially smaller number of invitees, Americans excluded.)

Beyond the really fast phone

Amon emphasizes that millimeter wave’s strongest appeal will be in use cases beyond holding a small internet-connected computer in your hand—think augmented reality and factory and office connectivity. “Millimeter wave will be very important, if not essential, to industrial-enterprise private deployments,” he said.

But one of those cases, noted by Amon in both the keynote and the interview, could make a huge difference to those of you sitting in front of a traditional computer all day in videoconferences: residential broadband.

Such fixed-wireless residential broadband providers as Starry (a 2019 Fast Company Most Innovative Company honoree) and Common Networks already use millimeter-wave frequencies to bring broadband to homes in a form that’s competitive with cable. Amon says to expect more offerings along those lines.

In this context, millimeter-wave 5G can reach farther because the required home hardware doesn’t move and can use bigger antennas—Amon cites a two-mile range. And unlike many cable broadband services, it should not require data caps.

“It’s been designed for unlimited data,” Amon says. “It has enough capacity and lower cost per bit.”

Although Amon warns that midband 5G fixed wireless was “not going to be as economical” for carriers looking to sell unlimited data, he adds that should still open up new possibilities for people limited to a local cable monopoly or, worse yet, only slow, phone-based DSL service. “It’s going to provide a competitive alternative as well,” he said. “That is a significant upgrade.”

Business-class 5G on high-end smartphones in dense areas may make for a great demo. But economy-class 5G that reaches into people’s homes should make for a much more meaningful difference.

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