Though 5G networks are being built right now, the actual availability of 5G service is waiting on unreleased handsets and citywide rollouts. Until then, Spanish carrier Telefónica has a solution: offer “4.9G” LTE using currently available Samsung and Nokia hardware, delivering up to 1Gbps speeds until 5G is ready to up the ante.
Telefónica, Samsung, and Nokia jointly announced that they’ve succeeded in delivering over 1Gbps data rates — pitched as similar to fiber broadband, but in mobile devices — by aggregating three bands of licensed radio spectrum. The “LTE Advanced Pro” technology is being called 4.9G because it nearly rivals upcoming 5G in data speeds (carriers expect 5G to hit between 2Gbps and 5Gbps peaks depending on a variety of factors). However, 5G will also deliver radically improved responsiveness, also known as reduced latency, as well as new security features missing from 4.9G.
On the handset side, Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and S9+ already contain the LTE Advanced Pro hardware necessary to support these high data speeds, and Qualcomm is similarly offering chips that support 4.9G. In areas with 4.9G networks, users of 4.9G devices will be able to enjoy radically better cellular speeds than, say, those in the iPhone family, which Apple has crippled with lower cellular performance due to an ongoing royalty dispute with Qualcomm.
As of today, 4.9G’s availability is limited, but it will continue to grow in the lead-up to 5G. Telefónica has debuted the technology commercially in Segovia, Spain, using Nokia AirScale base stations, and plans to add it in Talavera de la Reina while continuing to roll out 5G-capable hardware over the next two years. In January, the carrier promised to use the two cities as initial 5G launching and testing grounds starting in 2018, ahead of a full Spanish rollout in 2020.
Other carriers across the world have announced plans to improve their own networks’ 4G capabilities with LTE Advanced capabilities, using firmware upgrades to launch 5G as soon as it’s ready. Android phones with Samsung or Qualcomm chips appear likely to be the major beneficiaries of these initiatives, unless Apple steps up and improves the 2018 iPhones’ cellular capabilities, which is possible but not guaranteed.