Predictions for the biggest trends in mobile in 2019 are dominated by the imminent arrival of 5G.
The development of 5G network technology and products has been ramping up over the past few years, and 2019 will see the commercialisation of 5G, with telecoms services planned in the US, South Korea, Japan and China, among others.
Locally, data-only network Rain is planning its own 5G roll-out in SA early in 2019, while mobile operators like MTN and Vodacom continue to move towards a 5G launch in SA.
Market research firm TrendForce predicts the arrival of 5G smartphones will be in the spotlight this year.
According to TrendForce's latest report, Android smartphone brands such as Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo and One Plus all have a chance to launch 5G smartphones in 2019.
"However, the production volume of 5G models would only be 5 million units this year, a penetration rate of 0.4%, since the construction of 5G-related infrastructure has not been fully completed," the group says.
This, while overall global smartphone production volume is expected to total 1.41 billion units in 2019, 3.3% lower year-on-year than in 2018.
"With emerging demand for higher bandwidth and faster connection, branded smartphone makers have actively invested in the development of 5G devices to take initiatives in the market, although 5G base stations for commercial communication has not been widespread. Particularly, Android brands have been the early adopters, marking 2019 as the first year for 5G smartphones."
TrendForce says in terms of the specs upgrade in 5G smartphones, there are two major improvements: first, the application processor must be paired with a 5G modem; and second, there will be extra peripheral components, including the WiFi module and PA module, in order to enhance the phone reception and performance of the signal filter.
"The addition of these components will not only make the phones larger and thicker, but also increase the component costs sharply. For example, according to TrendForce's calculation, the BOM [bill of materials] costs of flagship 5G smartphones would increase by 20% to 30%."
TrendForce adds a widespread 5G architecture is also necessary to make 5G smartphones more popular. It says telecoms service providers need to deploy 5G networks faster and complete the tests of relevant end-services.
"It is estimated that the 5G infrastructure will not be completed until 2022. Moreover, the research and development (R&D) expenses of 5G smartphones remain high, high power consumption may also influence the standby time of phones, and there are also problems related to pricing strategies, etc. All these challenges need to be tested by the market and require a mature 5G ecosystem."
Meanwhile, mobile analytics company OpenSignal believes 5G will increase mobile speed variability, but not solve mobile network experience problems.
"5G will increase the existing trend towards wider speed variation because the high frequency bands that 5G will typically launch on, mostly 3.5Ghz and some mmWave bands, mean 5G services will offer both very high capacity and very high speeds in good conditions. But, where 5G services do not reach, users will fall back onto slower 4G, and even down to just 3G," according to Ian Fogg, VP of analysis at OpenSignal.
Fogg says ahead of 5G launches, 4G/LTE speed differences between countries are already increasing: 70% of countries where smartphone users experienced average download speeds above 30Mbps in September 2018 saw the metric improving during the first nine months of the year, while in only 38% of countries with download speeds lower than 30Mbps did overall speeds increase.
However, OpenSignal still believes 4G/LTE will remain the main way smartphones connect until at least 2021, well into the 5G era.
Despite initial 5G network launches in 2019, both 5G availability and the number of devices able to connect to 5G will remain limited. Mobile operators will use LTE to deliver a foundational blanket of mobile coverage alongside islands of high-speed 5G availability, the mobile analytics company believes.
"Global LTE availability will top 85% in 2019, an increase from 81.1% at the end of October 2018."
OpenSignal believes successful 5G mobile operators will use "experience" to market 5G services, not technology.
"Much industry discussion of 5G revolves around terms such as theoretical maximum speeds, which consumers will never experience, or technology terms such as mmWave, latency, or massive MIMO. None of these are mainstream terms consumers will understand. Operators that choose to market 5G on performance alone will struggle to persuade consumers to pay more for 5G," Fogg adds.
Instead of marketing a technology solution, operators will find success by explaining how 5G will deliver meaningful improvements in the mobile experience. For example, by explaining how users' mobile video experiences will improve, how multiplayer online games play better, or how video chat will be smoother and more reliable.
Mobile gaming boom
OpenSignal also predicts multiplayer mobile games will accelerate in 2019 and 5G's lower latencies will encourage new cloud gaming services.
"In anticipation of 5G's lower latency, but triggered now by the arrival of mass market multiplayer mobile games such as Fortnite, Pokemon Go and PUBG, mobile operators will launch new mobile tariffs aimed at gamers in 2019," OpenSignal anticipates.
OpenSignal sees 48% of 81 countries analysed experiencing improved LTE latency in 2018. Overall latency in Latin America will fall below 70ms, and in Europe and North America, latency will be below 60ms.
"Lower mobile network latencies will trigger renewed interest in cloud game streaming services, but now aimed at smartphone users, for example, Hatch or Microsoft's xCloud. However, cloud game services will continue to be frustrated by inconsistent mobile network experiences and the great differences between the mobile network experience offered on 4G and 5G networks."
Data management firm NetApp believes Internet of things (IOT) edge devices will get smarter in 2019 and more capable of making processing and application decisions in real-time.
"Traditional IOT devices have been built around an inherent 'phone home' paradigm: collect data, send it for processing, wait for instructions. But, even with the advent of 5G networks, real-time decisions can't wait for data to make the roundtrip to a cloud or data centre and back, plus the rate of data growth is increasing," says NetApp chief strategy officer Atish Gude.
"As a result, data processing will have to happen close to the consumer, and this will intensify the demand for more data processing capabilities at the edge. IOT devices and applications, with built-in services such as data analysis and data reduction, will get better, faster and smarter about deciding what data requires immediate action, what data gets sent home to the core or to the cloud, and even what data can be discarded."
Similarly, Juniper Research forecasts the total number of connected IOT sensors and devices will exceed 50 billion by 2022, up from an estimated 21 billion in 2018. The research group says this growth, equivalent to 140% over the next four years, will be driven by edge computing services, increasing both deployment scalability and security.
"Incorporating powerful artificial intelligence at the edge will enable faster processing and analysis of IOT applications, and deliver improved data filtering, automation and workload distribution. We expect cloud corporates to potentially lead this space strongly, given their experience and background in AI," Juniper says in its report: Top 10 tech trends for 2019.