Announcements about the coming next wave of even faster wireless networks, dubbed “5G” for fifth generation, are pouring in as we approach the start of the annual Mobile World Congress trade show next week.
But don’t be fooled. 2018 won’t the year of 5G and probably not 2019, either.
On Wednesday, AT&T (T) added a little more specificity to its public 5G roll out plans. The new tech, which can reach speeds perhaps five to 10 times faster than current 4G LTE networks, will come to AT&T’s cell towers in parts of Dallas, Atlanta, and Waco, Texas later this year, to be followed by another nine or so still-undisclosed markets by year end. That follows AT&T’s announcement in January that it would bring 5G to a dozen unspecified markets before the end of 2018. Competitors T-Mobile (TMUS) and Verizon (VZ) have also set out roughly similar schedules for progressive 5G expansions over the next few years.
There’s only one problem. No major phone maker currently sells a 5G compatible phone—not Apple, or Samsung, or anyone else. And while a bunch of new models will be unveiled at MWC next week, none of those are expected to support 5G, either. (Some manufactures have committed to start introducing 5G phones in 2019, however.) Presumably at least one mobile device, probably a Wi-Fi hotspot rather than a phone, will be available from AT&T in the targeted markets this year. But for the vast, vast majority of consumers, the 5G dream will remain just that.
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Meanwhile, AT&T also says its confusingly named “5G Evolution” service, currently offered in about two dozen markets, will continue to expand. The debut last year of the offering which isn’t actually 5G prompted T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray to quip that his company was announcing “7G Eventual.” Really just the fastest version of 4G LTE, the 5G Evolution service combines a couple of cutting-edge transmission tricks to reach speeds at least theoretically approaching one gigabit per second. Hence other carriers and mobile modem maker Qualcomm generally refer to the same kind of service as gigabit LTE.
Unlike 5G, many phone makers have added all the parts and activated the features needed for consumers to take advantage of gigabit LTE, though not Apple (AAPL). Anyone with a current flagship smartphone from LG, Samsung, or even startup Essential can take advantage of the technology to reach fast speeds, which in the real world tend to top out at less than 300 megabits per second. That’s fast enough to download a typical HD movie in about two minutes, but it’s no 5G.