Two things are immediately obvious at the Mobile World Congress, the annual showcase in Barcelona of everything telecom.
5G wireless, the speedier successor to the current 4G LTE, will be mostly unavailable until at least next year. And foldable phones, a number of which have been introduced in the past few weeks, may need more time to become viable.
But it’s no coincidence that foldable phones, which look much like normal smartphones when closed and like tablets when opened, are hitting the tech scene just as the 5G hype is building. And, hopefully for consumers, both should be a lot more useful in another year or two.
After all, one of the most touted advantages of 5G is that consumers would be able use its 10-times faster speeds to download a 4K movie in seconds. But there’s a big problem with selling consumers on the need to download 4K movies to their phones: They’ve been trained not to care.
Carriers have been downgrading the quality of streamed video to customers’ phones for several years while claiming that no one can even tell the difference. In 2016, then-Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure said 90% of customers didn’t notice any difference in tests between high-definition and DVD-quality streamed video. T-Mobile said when it offered customers a choice of watching higher quality video, 99% stuck with the lower quality setting.
However, consumers have been increasingly upgrading to 4K televisions. They do seem to care about video quality on larger screens.
Enter the larger-screened foldable phones on display at this year’s MWC (though only viewable through glass cases, with no touching possible).
- Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, which will cost nearly $2,000 when it goes on sale at the end of April, opens to offer a 7.3-inch screen called the “Infinity Flex Display.” The Fold will come in 4G and 5G versions, Samsung says.
- Huawei’s Mate X has an 8-inch folding screen dubbed the “Falcon Wing” and 5G compatibility, will cost nearly $2,600 when it goes on sale sometime in the middle of this year.
- And Chinese manufacturer TCL, which makes phones under the Blackberry and Alcatel brands, showed off a prototype of a folding phone that it calls the “DragonHinge” that is to be used in actual phones next year priced under $1,000.
Up close, none of the models look ready for prime time, especially those that cost $2,000 and up. And there’s usually a reason why tech companies don’t let reporters touch a new gadget: because it’s not ready Remember when Apple had a no-hands-on policy for the HomePod connected speaker debut in 2017, then delayed its shipping date and missed the holiday season?
At the same time, the 5G mobile networks don’t sound quite ready for the mass market yet, either. So far, AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ), Sprint, and T-Mobile have promised limited availability in parts of a few dozen cities over 2019, with nationwide coverage coming in 2020 or later.
On Monday in Barcelona, Sprint (S) revealed planned 5G mobile phone coverage in nine cities and, again, offered only very limited availability. In Chicago, the service will cover a 20 square-mile area where 300,000 of the city’s 2.7 million residents live (the entire metro area is home to 9.5 million people across nearly 7,200 square miles). In Atlanta, 500,000 people live in Sprint’s planned 5G coverage area of 120 square miles versus the metro area’s 5.9 million residents across almost 9,000-square miles.
“There’s no shortcut to building a 5G network, and building a 5G network the old-fashioned way is a lot of work,” Sprint chief technology officer John Saw explained. “That’s what we’ve been doing for the last 12 months. Everybody loves sausages but nobody wants to see how it is made.”
As far as pricing, T-Mobile says it won’t charge more for its 5G service than 4G LTE, as it tries to convince regulators to approve its pending merger with Sprint. But the other carriers have so far been silent about the topic and, on Monday, Sprint executives declined to discuss the issue.
Finally, only a few phones will work on the 5G networks this year, led by the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10 5G (no 5G iPhone is expected from Apple (AAPL) until next year). Asked about the date of a possible 5G iPhone, Sprint president Michel Combes was ready with a quip: “You should ask Apple.”