5G is here, according to Qualcomm Inc. President Cristiano Amon. At least the technology is.

“2020 will be the year that 5G scales,” Amon told an assembly at CES 2020. “We are very happy to see that the industry has progressed so that today – even if you want to use it with 4G while waiting for base stations to be built—the best 4G phone on the market today is 5G.”

Consumers can be forgiven if they haven’t noticed the change. The infrastructure that delivers long-awaited gigabit speeds, low latency and unlimited data hasn’t been built yet.

The transition is starting to happen — operators are deploying small-scale 5G networks the U.S., China, Korea, Japan and Australia. “The network is moving from pilots to initial launches in metropolitan areas,” Amon said. “I think it’s fair to say in 2020 you are going to see 5G in most major cities in the U.S. We are now in the process of building coverage.”

Qualcomm’s San Diego campus and its surrounding neighborhood has 5G, he noted.

“What’s really happening – what’s pacing the scale of coverage – is 5G requires more sites and more towers,” Amon explained. “The situation, especially in the United States, is operators have to negotiate municipality by municipality – sometimes neighborhood by neighborhood — how to get new sites. It takes a very short time to deploy a base station – it takes a very long time to get new sites.”

Ironically, the same public that’s impatient for 5G doesn’t like sprawling towers and power-sucking industrial buildings in their backyard. 5G requires a dense infrastructure.

5G, CES 2020,
Molly Wood, senior editor for Marketplace Tech, interviews Qualcomm’s Cristiano Amon

“On one hand, people say they want 5G and ‘where is my 5G, but I don’t want sites in my neighborhood,’” Amon said. “The two things are not compatible.”

Local politics aside, the 5G build-out is taking place alongside 4G. The change will be gradual.

“The first thing [consumers] are going to see is you have much higher speeds – an order of magnitude increase – and lower latency,” said Amon. “Some of the services you use every day will be much better.” Similar to 4G’s impact on streaming music, video will be the game changer – literally — for 5G.

5G will be the main platform for video distribution, Amon explained. “You will have a reliable connection to view news and sports and [5G] will finally deliver on user-content generation. Everyone will become a broadcaster because you have the speed to upload high-quality video to the cloud.” Microsoft and Google are predicting mainstream gaming will move away from consoles and on to smart phones. “Gaming will become a thing of the mobile industry,” Amon said.

Phones will remain 5G’s preferred delivery system. Qualcomm foresees companion devices springing up for a wide range of applications. “Today we know, even with some of the chips we are making, the limitation is the size of the screen. We have the processing power, and with the power of the hyperscale cloud, you can do almost anything. The only limitation is still the size of the screen.”

Wearable technology bridges those gaps. Device makers envision eyeglass-sized screens containing cameras, AR and facial-recognition capability. “I like to describe it as, you walk into a meeting and with facial recognition, you go immediately to the cloud and scan social media networks to get information on all the people you’re going to meet,” Amon said.

The automotive industry will see the biggest transformation with the advent of 5G. “This will range from upgrading your fundamental navigation system and ADAS as the car is connected to other cars and pedestrians and the cloud,” Amon explained. “You can populate a map with the location of all these things and how they move or how fast they move and use AI to make predictions. This is going to significantly upgrade ADAS and autonomy.”

Consumer demand – and investment – will accelerate the infrastructure build-out, Amon suggested. “The elevator pitch on what 5G does – connecting whatever device you have, phone to cars to the IoT —is based on technology that has a very wide pipeline that connects to the cloud 100% of the time. No matter what devices you have, you can connect two systems and have unlimited storage and unlimited data.”

5G is no longer the exclusive technology of the mobile industry, he concluded. “It’s part of the automotive conversation, it’s part of the IoT conversation, it’s part of the computing conversation. We have to count on all those companies sharing those visions. We are just at the beginning of this great transition.”