Raindrops splat the pavement in downtown Chicago as I balance an umbrella in the crook of my arm and phones in each hand. On my left, I’m downloading the PUBG Mobile game 5G networks anywhere in the world.. On my right, I’m timing how long it takes to install: 2.5 minutes (versus 6 minutes on 4G). What’s so exhilarating about this moment has less to do with the progress bar on my screen and more to do with bearing witness to one of the first live
After years of hearing how 5G is poised to change our lives with lightning-fast phone download speeds, and crisp, super high-resolution video calls, AR apps, and real-time gaming that are all lag-free, 5G is finally real. But it’s far from stable — and stability is the one thing 5G desperately needs.
On its surface, 5G is about astounding speeds and almost zero latency — the lag time between when your phone pings the network and when it responds. But on a global scale, it represents political dominance and economic might.
Nowhere is that point drawn more clearly than in President Donald Trump’s increasing interest in 5G, which so far includes stopping a buyout to keep US chipmaker Qualcomm independent, signing an executive order to ban No. 1 5G infrastructure company Huawei from operating with US companies, and even pushing for 6G upgrades as quickly as possible. (6G doesn’t exist yet.)
5G networks around the world are sprouting up as pinpricks in cities and neighborhoods, largely acting as hotspots that will give your phone some impressive juice if you’re standing in just the right place with just the right device. But move a block farther, enter a building or hop into a car and that 5G connection is just as likely to revert to 4G. Or the connection might hiccup and lose its grasp on 5G on its own.
ALSO READ: Technology: Is It Really Making Life Better?
By now, my fellow CNET editors and I have gotten an extensive first-hand taste of 5G on seven networks, in 11 cities spanning Los Angeles to Seoul, with four brands of phones. We’ve conducted dozens of speed tests on the benchmarking app Speedtest.net and downloaded movies and apps dozens of times from services like Google Play, Netflix and Amazon Prime.
We’ve seen an almost two-hour movie download in 8.2 seconds, and witnessed speeds almost 20 times faster than what you might see on your 4G phone (a 5G peak of 1.8Gbps so far). But we’ve also seen 5G stall, lag and cut out completely as undersung and overworked techs scrambled to keep these nascent networks up and running.
The 5G age is no longer approaching. It has dawned. But slowly, and with real challenges ahead. A future where 5G conjures virtual reality worlds in front of our eyes and the instant exchange of data that makes remote medical procedures possible still feels worlds away.
At this point in the game, anyone could win the race to stable 5G first — but some are in a better position than others.
Early 5G winners and losers
Everything could change as 5G development continues, but in these early days, some have pulled ahead while others have fallen behind.
South Korea, winner: While Verizon pooh-poohed South Korea’s claim of being the first in the world to 5G with three carriers giving their fastest phones to six celebrities, the country’s Ministry of Science and Technology reported that 1 million people signed up for 5G in 69 days, a faster rate than the country’s 4G rollout.
Samsung, winner: Speaking of South Korea, the world’s largest phone-maker has populated carriers worldwide with its premium Galaxy S10 5G phone, which is available on 14 networks all over the world, including the four major US carriers, as of Friday. It also sells from Samsung.com in regions that already have 5G or soon will, and through various retailers. It’s one of the first, most powerful phones to work with 5G, a feather in Samsung’s cap.
Qualcomm, winner: The world’s largest mobile chipmaker has been talking up 5G for years, and now that it’s live, the company appears to have a dominant position in the field. With the exception of Huawei, every 5G phone contains a Qualcomm chip. A gathering of dozens of carrier, handset and equipment executives on a Qualcomm stage at Mobile World Congress showed off just how critical the company is to the mobile industry.
Telstra, winner: Australia’s carrier has three 5G phones — the LG V50 ThinQ, Samsung Galaxy S105G, and Oppo Reno 5G — and 10 major 5G areas: Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, Toowoomba, Launceston, Melbourne, Hobart, Gold Coast, Canberra, and Brisbane. That’s impressive for a continent with a roughly 3 million square mile area — just about the same as the contiguous United States.
Huawei, loser: Although Huawei is the world’s largest maker of 5G networking equipment, the US action against the company — a result of its alleged coziness with the Chinese government — puts its entire business at risk.
As the US pressures other countries to follow suit, Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei said he wasn’t worried about the $30 billion that Huawei might lose as a result of the US ban. The company instead doubled down on its 5G investment, though its future is up in the air. Huawei did not respond to a request for comment.
Apple, loser: The iPhone is behind the 5G curve. Unlike rivals, Apple has not yet announced its 5G plans. Mired in a legal battle with chipmaker Qualcomm until April, Apple was originally planning to use Intel to bring the iPhone to 5G. After the settlement, Intel immediately dropped out of the 5G game, and the iPhone isn’t speculated to get 5G until 2020. If Apple sticks to its September cycle, it’ll trail Samsung by a year and a half. The Cupertino brand may not even get its own 5G chip until 2025. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.