5G is a buzz word nowadays and for the next year or so, you’re going to hear a lot about the next generation of cellular technology. And to make a name for itself in the new competition, Qualcomm a few months announced the first 5G mobile chipset that will be readily available to consumers in 2019. Even Mediatek will be announcing its 5G chip at Mobile World Congress 2019. But how far away are we from actually enjoying the technology in India and if yes, how wider will the rollout be? To get an idea around that possibility we need a side talk.
In this age of quick technological advancements, seldom do we notice a transformation that can mean a bigger picture and that will be the upcoming 5G technology. While to most people, 5G will be a mere successor to the already available 4G LTE, it’s also a serious mischaracterization. Sure it’ll be faster than any cellular service out there but it will also be faster to an extent that it may replace a premium broadband connection.
The 4G background story:
5G might be coming to the world, yes. But where does India stand in the roadmap for the next cellular transformation? If you can recall, the 4G LTE made its impact in India just two years ago, a whole four years after the technology went live in the United States. While Airtel and Vodafone in India were to debut 4G, it was only after Reliance Jio’s inception to the market that 4G was widely available and largely demanded. This was at a time even 3G cellular data service suffered from call drops and shaky download speeds.
In fact, the transition to 4G was so bad that it needed you to buy a whole another phone to start using the latest cellular technology. Only a few numbers of smartphone manufacturers, in the name of Google, Motorola and Samsung have developed consumer-friendly mobile phones with 4G support and these phones were top-of-the-line devices, meaning this would make a hole in your wallet. It was only after Reliance Jio’s attempt at selling 4G-ready Lyf phones when phone makers decided to sell readily available and affordable 4G phones.
Why do we need better 4G over anything?
It took years for the Indian operators to iron out 3G and its older technologies and shift to 4G, most of them, that is. State-run operator BSNL has only shifted to 4G a couple months ago and that too across a handful region. That said, it’s not just BSNL, but even other operators haven’t really brought focus to the quality of 4G in India. As the recent reports show, 4G may have hit a large score on availability, the real quality which comes down to upload and download speeds doesn’t really speak the 4G standards. In many ways, 4G is just a mere gold plated upgraded over 3G in India, whereas the rest of the world has experienced a major overhaul.
4G speeds in India continue to take a hit and are nowhere close to internet speeds in the US. For Indians, the only improvement that came through 4G was VoLTE or Voice over LTE which changed the scenario of HD calling across handsets. HD calling meant instant dial-up of calls without wait time and better network to network reliability. But the feature has been inconsistent for ages. Initially, other operators partially barred calls from users of Jio, but now, even with better 4G availability, call drops are a regular phenomenon.
The shift to 5G:
The inception of 5G will be like a bulldozer to the current shape of things in India. While smartphone makers and carriers will make it their motto of convincing users that it’s a smaller compromise for a better future, the truth will be a little less simple. Even the demos which have been showcased in India to present the use cases of 5G is work in Progress and at best in a trial stage. Also, if everything goes well, including spectrum auctions, we might see the first rollout of commercial 5G services somewhere in 2021 and before that it will only be trails limited to enterprise users.
Carriers in the US have initiated their vision toward 5G and started development of different high-frequency bands for the upgrade. In India, nobody is actually making a move, if not for Reliance Jio which pops up every once in a while trying to convince users that 5G is just around the corner.
If that’s the case with Indian operators, let’s see smartphones. In order for smartphones to use 5G, it’ll need chips that have integrated modems that support the next generation of cellular technology. Making these chips will be Qualcomm, MediaTek, Unisoc and smartphone companies which have their own line of chipsets. Qualcomm’s next biggest challenge will not be to convince its users about the Sub-6 GHz frequency or mmWave technology but to actually make it work.
As much as Qualcomm claims to be ready, its competitors indicate otherwise. MediaTek, which has remained a close second to the largest available SoC maker, hasn’t been making any noise about the cellular advancement though it is going to announce its 5G chipset in next 15 days. What this means is, we’re yet a long way away from a wider use case of 5G. While Qualcomm appears to be geared up for 5G, it needs some reminding that India and China are their biggest markets and it cannot hope to sell its chip without making an effort or simply devising support for 5G in affordable handsets.
In the last three months we have been following up with SOC player and operators regularly for updates and to hear their side of the story. Everyone, except Qualcomm and Airtel, has readily shared their perspective ( that too on video as well) and were forthcoming with sharing news (not everything but whatever they could share without impacting their business) about the work in progress related to 5G whenever we approached them.
David Ku, CFO, MediaTek said to us, ” 5G is work in progress and we are not making any hue and cry over it because its rollout doesn’t depend on just one entity. When the ecosystem is ready we will also be ready.” He further added, ” In India right now the focus of the ecosystem players in on 4G and when that changes we will do our bit.”
Where do smartphone manufacturers stand in this transformation?
So where does that bring us with the next expected 5G phones from smartphone companies? Looking at Apple, there’s absolutely no way the Cupertino giant will land a 5G phone, clearly when their latest iPhones have received the worst welcome in a decade. Having already launched the Pixel 3 a couple months ago, Google won’t be looking to revise 5G support as early as the Pixel 4. Since Huawei and Honor use the same Kirin line of chipsets, it’s left for their SoC developers to bring 5G support to their chipsets. Things are, however, brighter for LG, Samsung, OnePlus and Motorola who use Qualcomm chips on their smartphones and release smartphones all through the year.
Samsung will soon be launching the Galaxy S10 or its foldable smartphone while LG looks to launch the LG G8 in the first quarter of this year. Both can be expected to rock Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 855 chipset which will render support for 5G. Motorola, on the other hand, has already demonstrated its much awaited 5G Mod, which will attach to the Moto Z3 to support the next generation 5G technology. That’s a surprise, considering there aren’t other readily available phones which can be upgraded with 5G support in the new future and there is not a single handset brand in the list which has been launching smartphones for the millennials regularly
Do you need a 5G-ready phone right away?
That brings us to whether you must buy a 5G phone right away. While the benefits of buying a 5G phone right from the start would give you significant time to use it and replace the phone when the next cellular generation comes, it comes with its own demerits. For example, early models of 5G phones will only have support for a limited number of bands, not to mention, it wouldn’t be efficient when the technology develops. Prices for 5G phones will also be high unless a new player jumps in and revamps the operator business as Reliance Jio did two years ago.
This begs the question – will you benefit from Qualcomm’s first 5G chipset and the first generation of mobile devices which will be powered by the same? Maybe, if you’re in dire need of the technology, centred at the right place. For most of us, a big NO, at least for now. 5G will be a game-changer, yes but not for another couple of years and not until we see a carrier-manufacturer deal that shakes the scenario a little bit. Sure brands will label their next smartphone as 5G ready, but we’ll also see a lot of non-5G phones at least till 2020.
5G is coming whether India will go full throttle for it or not remains to be seen but how Qualcomm and its friends deploy the foundation to what might be considered essential in the future is a story which is currently unfolding.