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CES 2020 Took A Big Leap Toward The 5G Future

The move to high-speed 5G connectivity will lead to connected devices and applications that go well beyond the smartphone, top industry players told CRN.

While the hype around 5G has been building for years, and 5G smartphones steadily hit the market in 2019, CES 2020 marked the first time the world got to see where 5G goes next.

Kicking off 5G's next phase, the world’s three largest PC manufacturers all used the Las Vegas tech show to announce upcoming laptops that will support high-speed 5G connectivity. And top industry players who spoke with CRN during CES this week said it’s just the first taste of where else 5G will go.

[Related: The 10 Most Innovative Laptops From CES 2020]

"It's this chicken or the egg problem--a lot of times people don't know what to use it for until it's actually there," said Mike Roberts, vice president and head of mobile business unit product and partner marketing at Qualcomm, the dominant producer of 5G modems and antennas, in an interview with CRN.

Beyond the initial phases of bringing 5G to existing devices and applications are the unknown--but potentially more transformative--applications enabled by 5G.

"I think there are definitely going to be things we haven't thought about," Roberts said. "And honestly that's what excites me the most. Because if we can project everything, it's kind of boring."

5G Smartphones

In the near term, 2020 will of course see a far greater rollout of 5G smartphones and 5G coverage from carriers than in 2019, said Lynnette Luna, principal analyst at research firm GlobalData Technology. This should especially be the case in the second half of the year, when Apple is expected to launch the first 5G-enabled iPhones, Luna told CRN.

"Apple really helped drive 4G when it adopted the technology, and I expect the same here," she said. "Also, we are expecting to see many more mid-range priced smartphones beginning this year in the $500-$700 range."

Additionally, "carriers are aggressively expanding their coverage areas to achieve coverage that is nearly on par with 4G," Luna said. "So I wouldn't be surprised to see carriers in early 2021 talking about how 5G subscriptions are beginning to overtake 4G."

2020 "is the year of 5G expansion and going mainstream--going beyond premium [smartphones] to mid-tiers, and expansion into new device categories such as PCs," said Ignacio Contreras, senior director of 5G marketing at Qualcomm, in an interview with CRN.

5G Laptops

At CES 2020, the most prominent 5G PC to be announced was Lenovo's Flex 5G, which is poised to become the first PC to include 5G support as a default capability.

With the inclusion of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx platform, which includes a 5G modem, the notebook is "designed around 5G," said Christian Teismann, senior vice president for worldwide commercial business at Lenovo. That has included ensuring strong battery life for the Flex 5G even with the high-speed mobile connectivity, he said.

Other laptops unveiled at CES 2020 offer support for 5G connectivity as an option--including HP's Elite Dragonfly G2, Dell's Latitude 9510 and Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Fold. It’s no coincidence that all three of those notebooks are geared toward businesses, since 5G’s added security (from avoiding public WiFi) and uninterrupted connectivity would be a boon to business users, several industry executives told CRN at CES this week.

In particular, amid “rampant” WiFi-based threats, “security is a great value proposition” for 5G, said Alex Cho, president of HP's personal systems business, in an interview with CRN at CES.

HP has been laying the groundwork for 5G PCs with a number of 4G/LTE-enabled notebooks in recent years--and has been seeing a steady increase in customers looking to connect their notebooks over cellular, Cho said.

"Then you add to that 5G, and we think that will really accelerate that even more," he said.

Beyond Phones And Laptops

Ultimately, the laptop is just one of the many devices beyond the smartphone that will be capable of connecting over 5G, Teismann predicted.

"I believe that in three, four or five years from now, 5G will just be the norm," Teismann told CRN. "Many corporations will also stop equipping for Wi-Fi--they will just have campus 5G. If you look at what IoT devices will require when they are constantly connected, they will be connected on 5G. Because the amount of data--and also the speed that you need to have for IoT devices [to avoid] latency--will require supporting 5G. So I think 5G will be much more pervasive than LTE is on the device side."

Industrial IoT deployments should a major beneficiary of 5G. Manufacturing plants, for instance, will be able to shift to 5G rather than continually rewiring their Ethernet, said Qualcomm's Mike Roberts.

"5G allows you to have that massive IoT--which previous cellular generations have not. They just couldn't scale to thousands of nodes," Roberts said.

In the business world, users will better leverage cloud resources with 5G--for everything from enhanced AI capabilities to running heavy applications such as video rendering on highly portable mobile devices, he said.

"I can have the cloud do the major video rendering, and then send that back down to me over 5G," Roberts said. "5G allows us to extend the capabilities of the device into the cloud."

A wave of new mobile apps inspired by the faster speeds of 5G is also a sure bet, as is an evolution of augmented/virtual/mixed reality to be more mobile as a result of 5G, he said.

Getting 5G Off The Ground

The spread of 5G will no doubt come with hurdles, as businesses and consumers navigate the new landscape.

The use of different 5G methods among the carriers--including sub-6GHz and higher-speed millimeter-wave bands--is expected to mean that 5G experiences will be far from uniform. The uneven, gradual geographic expansion of 5G will be another issue in the short term, as will uncertainties about pricing.

Those are just some of the issues that solution providers must grapple with when deciding how to pursue the 5G opportunity, said Marco Nielsen, vice president of managed mobility services at Stratix, a mobility service provider based in Peachtree Corners, Ga.

Customers "definitely want those answers" on questions about 5G coverage and pricing before making major investments, Nielsen said.

Prior to 5G being available nationwide, many customers "won't care," he said.

"I'm still worried about the signal strength,” Nielsen said. Overall, “I just think it will take some more time,” he said.

Roberts, however, contends that there is certainty on one thing: any flavor of 5G coverage will represent an improvement.

"It can be very confusing, because each carrier is different. The technologies they're deploying and the timeframes that they're deploying them in is a bit different," Roberts said. "But to me the biggest thing is that when you see that 5G icon, you know your quality of service is going to be a step function above what you have today."

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