Technalysis Research
Previous Columns

December 17, 2019
AT&T 5G Low-Band Service Shows Where the Technology Stands

2019 Forbes Columns

Forbes Columns
TECHnalysis Research president Bob O'Donnell writes a regular column in Forbes and those columns are posted here and archived on this site.

January 9, 2020
CES Previews What to Expect from 5G in 2020

By Bob O'Donnell

As expected, this year’s CES extravaganza featured a lot of noise around 5G, but the actual 5G news from the show was a bit different than many might have predicted. There was little to no discussion of new 5G phones, but a lot of announcements around 5G-enabled PCs. Similarly, we didn’t see (or hear) much about autonomous cars being driven via 5G, or robotic surgery being performed over 5G or any other of the more “out there” applications promised for 5G—in part because people are increasingly aware that those things are a very long way off (or might never really come to pass).

At the same time, there was some discussion at Qualcomm’s CES press conference of momentum towards a 5G-based version of vehicle to vehicle communication (V2V or sometimes called CV2X—short for cellular-based vehicle to everything connectivity) leveraging the 5.9 GHz frequency band. Ironically, this happened around the same time I experienced a demonstration of what for me was the first real-world usage of the 20+ year-old DSRC (Dedicated Short-Range Communications) standard—which the new 5G CV2X option would replace. In this instance, DSRC was used to communicate between a car and stop lights as part of a Lyft ride along the Las Vegas Strip in a, frankly, very unimpressive autonomous car.

One of the more interesting real-world 5G applications at the show was for a dedicated point-to-point connection between a Sony Xperia 5G mmWave-based transmitter, designed to be used in conjunction with a high-end Sony professional video camera, and network production equipment. Working in conjunction with NBC Sports, the two companies discussed how this allowed the network to have highly mobile 4K-quality wireless video streamed from shoulder-mounted cameras at events like NFL games. Definitely useful, but clearly not mainstream.

The point of all this is that CES 2020 highlighted how the common perceptions of 5G are still very different from reality, but also how the diversity of what 5G might be used for continues to expand. On the device front, for example, we still have not seen a single smartphone that supports both mmWave and sub-6 variations of 5G, but there is now a PC that supports both: the Qualcomm and Arm-powered Lenovo Yoga 5G. The first 5G smartphones to support both technologies probably won’t arrive until after the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona in late February—and to be fair, the Lenovo 5G-capable notebook isn’t expected to ship until after that time either—but I seriously doubt anyone expected a “full 5G” PC to be announced before a full 5G smartphone.

What’s also interesting about 5G PCs is that they’re arriving around the time when the notion of a cellular-connected PC is really starting to gain some traction. Having now lived with 4G LTE-enabled HP EliteBook X360 for several months and having enjoyed the incredible freedom from never having to worry about finding, logging into, getting kicked off of, or suffering through a poor WiFi network connection, there is absolutely no going back. Honestly, in the case of 5G PCs, it’s the benefits of cellular connectivity that matter the most—the potential extra speed enhancements from 5G (which is the only real benefit that most people will be experiencing with 5G on PCs over the next few years) is basically just gravy.

Another interesting side note about the PC implementations of 5G is that they happen to be a device where mmWave support doesn’t really matter as much from a practical perspective, because the vast majority of PC usage is done indoors, where sub-6 GHz-based 5G signals can more easily reach. (To be clear, mmWave technology will work indoors—if you’re in a building or facility that has a mmWave transmission point/tower inside—but there are very, very few of those at present.) So, while it’s an impressive technical effort that Lenovo was able to pull off with its Yoga 5G PC, having both 5G variations may not matter very much for many PC users. In fact, the optional 5G capability that Lenovo will be adding to its very cool foldable PC, the ThinkPad X1 Fold, will only support sub-6. Similarly, the 5G options on the new version of HP’s DragonFly ultra-lightweight notebook and Dell’s forthcoming Latitude 9750 will only support sub-6. Clearly for PCs, 2020 will be primarily a sub-6 5G world—but that’s OK. It’s just the first of what will likely be several different sub-segments within the broader 5G world that we can expect to see this year.

In the case of smartphones, on the other hand, there’s no question that 2020 will be the time when a combination of sub-6 support and mmWave will become standard and even required—although most such devices won’t be available until later in the year. Despite the relatively slow momentum and ongoing build-out of mmWave (no surprise given the costs involved), people are now starting to see full 5G support as a necessary future-proofing checkmark for their next smartphone purchase. As a result, it makes little sense to purchase a smartphone that only supports one part of the standard or the other. Unlike PCs, smartphones get used everywhere, so their likelihood of running into both mmWave and sub-6 5G radio signals are significantly higher.

Finally, on the network front, it was interesting to note that none of the key technologies designed to ease the transition from 4G to 5G—particularly DSS, or dynamic spectrum sharing—were discussed much at the show (see “How Fast Will 5G Really Be?” for a detailed explanation of DSS and other network technologies). In part, this is likely because these technologies were discussed so much in 2019 that most people (myself included!) probably presumed they were up and running. In reality, however, DSS is not yet running on any major telco network and won’t get turned out until the latter half of the year. CES 2020 would have seemingly been the perfect place to talk about network enhancement like DSS finally becoming real (and maybe even demonstrated), but the fact that they weren’t strongly suggests there’s still a lot of work left to be done.

Ultimately, the 5G story at CES was a decidedly mixed one. Yes, there continued to be a lot of grandiose statements from many companies about the huge potential long-term impact that 5G may/will someday bring in order to whet people’s appetite for future developments, but in real near-term news, the show highlighted the increasingly complex and divergent phenomenon that 5G is becoming as we start the new decade. Lots more to happen, but lots more to still figure out.

Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.

Here’s a link to the original column:

Forbes columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community.