History will remember April 2019 as a particularly big month for 5G networks, as carriers from the U.S.South Korea, and Europe all launched or significantly expanded their first 5G services. Last night, another global power revealed that it is 5G-ready, as state-owned carrier China Unicom announced that it’s moving up China’s first 5G network deployment to May. The news was unsurprisingly trumpeted by key 5G chipmaker Qualcomm, which has taken a key role in supplying components and support for all of the launches, and will have 5G modems inside most of China Unicom’s first 5G devices.

To mark this significant global milestone for 5G deployments, I interviewed Qualcomm 5G marketing director Ignacio Contreras and 5G communications lead Samir Khazaka, discussing both the China Unicom announcement and the broader state of 5G across the world today. The message was clear: “All rational players in the industry” are in the process of preparing to deploy 5G very quickly, as there’s widespread carrier and consumer interest in faster, more capable devices and networks — noticeably more excitement than in the 3G to 4G transition.

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

VentureBeat: Before we get into global questions, what’s the bigger picture behind China Unicom’s early 5G deployment?

Ignacio Contreras: 5G is coming fast. If we go back 10 years, to the launch of 4G in December of 2009, there were two or three OEMs that really committed to developing products. And less than a handful of operators committed to transitioning from 3G to 4G. Remember at that time, there was also this competition between WiMax and LTE on what was going to be the standard for 4G overall.

Fast forward 10 years. The transition to 5G is a very different picture. We have a whole set of device makers willing to develop products on 5G — we already announced that there are more than 30 products already in design or planned to go to launch this year using our 5G solutions, and we have more than 20 operators worldwide committed to deploying 5G early, this year.

And China is a big thing. From 3G to 4G, it took several years for China to get it started with LTE. But once it got started, of course, the technology started gaining scale much, much quicker. Now we see China coming to 5G on year one. And we feel that that will make a big difference in terms of the speed of adoption of technology.

It’s not just China. This year you will see deployments of 5G across the U.S., Europe — Swisscom just announced — South Korea with the three major carriers, Australia, Japan, and of course China now all coming at virtually the same time. You can have those discussions as to who’s first, who’s second on all of this. But in year one, seeing launches of the next generation cellular technology across all these regions, is something that’s certainly unique, versus any other transition that we have had to newer cellular technology.

VentureBeat: Is there anything particularly interesting about China’s 5G implementation?

Contreras: China Unicom is using what’s called a non-standalone architecture for 5G. Not long ago, the expectation was that China was going to mostly use [the 5G standard’s] standalone architecture that uses both a 5G radio and 5G in the core network overall. A few years back at Qualcomm and other companies, there was an ambition and need to accelerate the deployment of 5G given the benefits in terms of capacity, speeds, and giving operators access to new spectrum assets, like millimeter wave or 3.5GHz and the mid-bands. So Qualcomm and companies involved in the 5G standards saw value in creating a non-standalone mode, in which you’re still using 4G for the core network and radio control resources to manage the network, but data is transferred over 5G.

Now we see China Unicom adopting this architecture on the initial rollout of 5G. So plans to accelerate 5G using the non-standalone version of the standard are working. And we see a clear intent from operators to deploy 5G very fast. That’s what we see now as the meaningful part of China Unicom adopting the non-standalone architecture — to be able to roll out 5G very soon.

VentureBeat: In the United States, Verizon has made a big deal about how “true 5G” requires millimeter wave radios, and AT&T initially launched 5G with millimeter wave as well. Like South Korea, China is launching 5G on sub-6GHz frequencies, without millimeter wave. Is sub-6GHz going to wind up becoming the “true 5G” or mass-market 5G for most people, with millimeter wave purely optional?

Contreras: To be clear: no. Both of them are 5G, and it will depend on the spectrum landscape and particular operator needs to determine the timing of deploying one, the other, or both. With sub-6GHz — actually with LTE — you can achieve multi-gigabit speed, with the proper network configuration. But you can get more if you access 5G and you have other other aspects of the 5G specification, like multi-MIMO, that allow you to have not just a good peak speed, but also more consistent performance, particularly in challenging network conditions, like when you are far from the cell tower.

Advancements in 5G allow [carriers] to take more advantage of mid-band spectrum assets. The big challenge here is that people keep consuming more and more data, so we are looking at any possible tool to be able to address that capacity. And you can do some of those things in sub-6GHz, but millimeter wave is a whole new set of spectrum assets that were not even available before. You can use the full 800MHz of spectrum in the millimeter wave band, that combined with LTE, you can achieve speeds up to 7Gbps. That would not be possible as of now, on sub-6GHz alone.

VentureBeat: What are your views at this point on low-band spectrum, like 600-700MHz, which T-Mobile U.S. and Rogers in Canada are planning to use for 5G?

Contreras: A few months back, we introduced the Snapdragon X55, our new second-generation 5G modem, along with our second generation of RF front end solutions. And that whole 5G subsystem from modem to antenna is designed to address all key bands, whether it’s millimeter wave, sub-6GHz… all meaningful combinations of spectrum overall.

One thing that will be very important is spectrum-sharing technology. With the spectrum sharing, you can use the same band simultaneously to support both 4G and 5G devices, right. So unlike in the past, in which transitions had to be a hard switch, this technology will be key to smooth out and make it easy for operators to transition into 5G. So you will see that if practically any major LTE band will become also suitable for 5G because of these technologies.

We expect that the [first-generation Snapdragon] X50 will power virtually all the first wave of 5G launches across all regions this year… The X55, we expect to see in commercial products more towards the end of this calendar year.

VentureBeat: Are there any sort of comments you can make regarding the health concerns that some people have raised on millimeter wave and 5G in general, due to the densification of networks?

Contreras: From the device standpoint, where we focus our efforts, just like the rest of the industry, we design our products to comply with safety regulations, and there’s a whole process that includes several organizations like the World Health Organization and others, to help define what are the proper limits of RF emissions.

Two things that are important to highlight: One, with 5G, the total transmit power from any device, those limits don’t change. So whether you have a 3G or 4G or 5G device, basically the RF emissions limits don’t change with that, nor does exposure to RF emissions coming from these kinds of devices. So that’s one thing that’s important for the debate.

And the other thing is millimeter wave. It does not penetrate human tissue beyond a very low skin depth. The focus now tends to be more about the protection of skin tissue, versus other aspects that have seen before with traditional RF spectrum. Because of the way that 5G millimeter wave is designed, the beam is always trying to be pointed to make a reflection, relative to the cell tower, and that’s usually away from the person. The beam will always will try to move away from your hand or the person overall, and try to focus on a surface that can reflect the signal toward the base station.

VentureBeat: You had the opportunity to visit Chicago for the launch of Verizon’s 5G service there, and we’ve recently seen comments on spotty 5G services in South Korea. In the near term, what performance experience do you think the average consumer across U.S., South Korean, or Chinese cities will be seeing?

Contreras: What I can tell you from my own experience in Chicago is that you very quickly get used to hundreds of megabits per second of speed. And then it’s hard to come back to things that are lower than that overall.

My main thought is that it’s more about the app developer ecosystem, and how developers now with 5G out there can take advantage of its capabilities. Developers have to start encoding and creating experiences based on the new capabilities of the network. Just like we saw with 4G.

VentureBeat: When do we realistically think that developers are going to be able to rely upon enough of a 5G network in the United States or in China that can actually roll out services that are specific to 5G?

Contreras: We are on the onset of 5G. I don’t have any particular timeline in mind, but we should expect more widespread proliferation towards next year, of course. Definitely something that’s faster than what the transition was from 3G to 4G overall. That’s the benchmark that we’re using here — if the transition from 3G to 4G was considered to be a fast transition, this will be even faster than that.

Samir Khazaka: We’re happy with seeing the acceleration, and the effort that is being put early on 5G and the level of competition that’s happening, in the industry in order to bring these networks online, and push them hard and deploy them. These first few cities that got launched, a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of making sure that these devices are working and they’re stable, that the network is there, the standards are ready — that’s already kind of been done. And I think what remains is easier, which is we have to optimize a little bit, and also launch many more of those sites. I think that’s kind of happening and the operators are moving fast in that direction. And I think you’re going to see competition also take hold and accelerate that.

So admittedly, today’s the early stages, but it’s a great start. And it’s hard to judge it based on that, based on today. You have to wait a little bit, until the networks start to take shape more. But if you’re an end user that’s ready to go and upgrade your device, you’re going to want to have the greatest and latest modem in the device, because you’re keeping that device for a reasonable period of time. Your operator is fast launching all of these different assets. So you want to be able to benefit from that not just in the coverage area that you have today in your city, but as that coverage also expands.

Contreras: We are convinced that once you are on 5G, you see meaningful change in terms of the overall user experience. But also there’s a need for operators as well — they need more capacity, they need to have more access to new spectrum assets and technology to be able to be competitive and again, satisfy their customers with the data demand that they are going to be placing on the network. The combination of those two factors are what’s driving all rational players in the industry, OEM and operators, to prepare and deploy 5G very, very quick.

VentureBeat: Putting networks aside, most of the announced 5G phone options appear to be in the $1,000 and up range, so how long is it going to take to get users onto 5G? In the last 24 or 48 hours, Huawei said it was planning on putting out 5G phones in the $600 range or thereabouts for China, but what about Qualcomm options? Is the hope that U.S. carriers will subsidize these phones to get people using 5G on their networks?

Contreras: This is a competitive market, so the value proposition needs to be compelling. Xiaomi announced in Europe that their 5G device will be priced at 599 Euros, which is about 680 U.S. Dollars. So the range will be there. And yes, 5G this year will be present in premium devices, so you will see 5G in premium offerings from OEMs. But in this context, you will see a set of price ranges that are aimed to be compelling value propositions.

And also in terms of the operators, they can also create value propositions in a number of ways. One is subsidies/financial plans, or bundling with accessories, or bundling with content. There’s a number of elements of how operators can actually create propositions that are compelling today.

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