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New 5G Technology Will Speed Up Mobile Phones, Eventually

Ericsson vice president Sara Mazur poses next to a 5G device.Ericsson vice president Sara Mazur poses next to a 5G device.
Ericsson vice president Sara Mazur poses next to a 5G device.Photograph by Daniel Roos — Ericsson

The next generation of mobile technology, known as 5G, remains years away, with the wireless industry still trying to reach agreement on needed standards and regulators still pondering spectrum assignments and other rules.

And with many questions yet to be answered, perhaps the most unmade decision of all is just how mobile carriers will proceed once the technology is ready. The 5G technology appears to provide connections 10 or more times faster than the current top download speeds, but it also faces challenges traveling over long distances and penetrating objects and buildings.

Verizon Communications (VZ), AT&T (T), Sprint (S), and T-Mobile (TMUS) have all discussed test results and possible use cases. Will they focus on 5G phones and tablets, home Internet service, smart devices, and the “Internet of things,” or something completely different? It’s too soon to know.

Meanwhile, manufacturers including Qualcomm, Nokia, and Ericsson are offering their own varied roadmaps for when 5G equipment will be ready.

But that kind of uncertainty doesn’t deter the professional prognosticators of the industry—the market research firms that make their living by making forecasts. And while those forecasts can be horribly off (who else remembers that Windows Mobile was going to conquer smartphones by 2016?), they do at least provide benchmarks along the way. Sales forecasts for the virtual reality market still seem insanely high, for example, but they have been going down lately, providing a signal that the tech likely has been overhyped.

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So into the 5G breech steps Strategy Analytics this week, with a pair of reports forecasting how the rollout will proceed and how the 5G mobile device market will grow.

“While the first commercial 5G handsets will appear in small numbers in 2020 in South Korea and Japan, from 2021 more countries, including the U.S., U.K., Sweden, UAE, and China, will see their own launches,” says Ken Hyers, a director at Strategy Analytics, in one report. “By 2022 tens of millions of 5G handsets will be sold, and as a proportion of total handset sales will reach low single digit percentages.”

Early phones will be expensive and struggle with poor battery life, unstable connectivity and an inability to interact smoothly with earlier wireless standards like the current 4G LTE system, the firm warns. But these issues will be resolved by 2020 and 5G-compatible phone sales will exceed 300 million by 2025.

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That kind of bold, line-in-the-sand numerical forecast is just the kind of precise but unknowable prediction that can look so foolish in the years to come. But it nonetheless provides benchmark of the 5G hype that can be useful. By next year, Strategy Analytics may have revised its 2025 sales prediction to 200 million or, perhaps, 400 million phones.

Either way, it will reveal less about actual phone sales in 2025 than it will about how much progress the industry made in 2016 and 2017 on the early technology tests and the needed standards and rules.