If you've been waiting impatiently for 5G, your wait is nearly over: networks are beginning to be switched on and handsets are becoming available. However, it's very early days, and the utility of 5G services will depend for some time on where you live, what you want to do with the new mobile technology, and how much you're prepared to pay as an early adopter.
Every new mobile generation generates plenty of media coverage, but 5G is different thanks in no small measure to the controversy surrounding Huawei, which is a leading supplier of networking equipment and smartphones. At the time of writing, Huawei remains on the US Commerce Department's Entity List, which prohibits US companies from exporting technology products and software to the Chinese company without specific authorisation.
Although alleviated somewhat by a 90-day special licence, this move -- driven by the suspicion that Huawei poses a cybersecurity threat to US interests -- severely hampers Huawei's long-term ability to do business in the 5G market. Two of the key suppliers of the smartphone ecosystem -- Google (the Android operating system) and Arm (processor designs) -- have put their ongoing relationships with Huawei on hold, for example.
All UK operators use multiple vendors for their network infrastructure, but Huawei's equipment is both reliable and competitively priced, and therefore widely used. In April, the UK government signalled that it would allow Huawei to supply 'non-core' components of its 5G infrastructure such as masts and antennas. In response, the Trump administration indicated that Huawei's involvement in UK 5G networks could disrupt intelligence co-operation between the two countries (which has historically been very close). However, President Trump struck a more positive note in June: "We are going to have absolutely an agreement on Huawei and everything else," he said at a press conference in London during his state visit. "We have an incredible intelligence relationship and we will be able to work out any differences," Trump added.
As of 19 August, there are mixed signals coming from the US: President Trump has reiterated his misgivings over Huawei on the grounds of national security; meanwhile, the Department of Commerce has extended its Temporary General License (TGL), allowing US companies to trade with Huawei for another 90 days, and added another 46 of the company's affiliates to the Entity List.
This is the background to the 5G roll-out in the UK, which is covered here. The key point to note is that 5G coverage will remain patchy and dependent on existing 4G infrastructure for some time. Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) and Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) will be supported from the start, but new use cases based on Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC), Massive Machine Type Communication (MMTC) and network slicing will require updated standards and standalone 5G infrastructure to come on-stream. Additional geopolitical complications can only delay these developments.
Smartphone manufacturers are beginning to release 5G handsets in the UK -- although as you can see from the information above, network coverage is only just getting underway. The 'standard' platform is Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 processor and X50 5G Modem, although Huawei's handsets use the company's Kirin 980 processor and Balong 5000 5G modem.
With the exception of new folding designs, most early 5G handsets are based on existing 4G devices. But to accommodate the 5G modem and antennas, trade-offs need to be made. So as well as being more expensive, you'll usually find that 5G models either have a smaller battery for the same weight and dimensions, or use a bigger battery in a slightly bulkier, heavier chassis.
HTC's 5G Hub is a small (129x100x43mm) Android 9.0 device with a 5-inch HD touch-screen and a Nano-SIM slot for 5G or 4G LTE connectivity. It runs on the Snapdragon 855/X50 platform with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage, expandable up to 512GB via MicroSD, and can support up to 20 devices over wi-fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ad). The 5G Hub can function as a home media hub or serve small offices with secure (encrypted, VPN) connections. It's also battery powered (7,660mAh, 'all day' life) and lightweight enough (340g) to serve as a mobile hotspot.
Powered by Huawei's multi-mode Balong 5000 5G chipset, the 5G CPE Pro is a dual-band (2.4/5GHz) wi-fi router with Huawei HiLink support. The 5G CPE Pro supports both 4G and 5G wireless connections; on a 5G network, Huawei says, a 1GB HD video clip can be downloaded in three seconds, and 8K video can be streamed smoothly without lag.
Availability EE, Vodafone Price $1099 in US (~£866)
Although they won't ship until early 2020 and pricing has yet to be announced, Lenovo has unveiled a new class of 5G-connected PCs in a collaboration with Qualcomm called Project Limitless. The new Arm-powered devices will use Qualcomm's 8cx 5G chipset featuring the multi-mode Snapdragon X55 5G Modem.