Next-generation wireless technology took another step forward Thursday as the first smartphone with built-in 5G technology arrived in stores — and Minneapolis was one of the few places to test it out.
Samsung Electronics Co. introduced its model S10 5G around the U.S. But for the moment, the phone, which has a base price of $1,299, can achieve 5G speeds only in Minneapolis and Chicago.
Verizon Communications Inc. turned on 5G cell sites in portions of the two cities in April. In Minneapolis, Verizon's 5G footprint covers almost all of downtown.
The two companies allowed journalists in both Minneapolis and Chicago to test out the phone. A handful gathered Thursday morning in the Commons Park, then toured U.S. Bank Stadium and were free to walk around downtown with the phones for several hours.
In many parts of downtown, the 5G phone's download speeds frequently surpassed 1 gigabit per second, or 1,000 megabits. By contrast, download speeds on Verizon's 4G network, which blankets Minnesota, moves data at about 60 megabits per second. For the moment, Verizon's 5G network relies on its 4G system for data uploads.
In the Commons Park, a 48-minute TV program on Netflix downloaded into the phone in just nine seconds. At that pace, an entire season of TV shows would take about three to four minutes to download for watching when the phone wasn't connected to a network.
But the promise of 5G speeds go beyond consumer convenience. Developers will create new uses for mobile data that just aren't possible at lower speeds.
As always with the rollout of new network technology, phone manufacturers and wireless carriers are in a chicken-and-egg situation. The phone manufacturers won't be able to sell many 5G phones unless consumers can access higher-speed networks, and carriers need consumers with upgraded phones to justify the build-out of higher-speed networks.
The change from 3G networks to 4G started in the U.S. about a decade ago and took several years to become mainstream. This time, wireless carriers are promoting 5G earlier in the transition, even before some portions of the radio spectrum have been assigned to it. As well, the 5G transition has become a flash point in a broader battle in technological innovation between the U.S., China and other countries.
Mike Haberman, a vice president of network engineering at Verizon, said he believes companies are investing more heavily at an earlier stage in 5G than they did during the change to 4G, also known as LTE. "The whole ecosystem that's involved is making this move a lot quicker than LTE," Haberman said.
Even so, technical limits abound in the early implementations. For instance, Verizon's 5G network in Minneapolis is accessible chiefly on the street and not in buildings. That's partly because its first antennas are aimed at streets but also because the 5G signals don't travel as far and more cell sites are needed.
In the lobby of the Star Tribune building, across the street from a Verizon 5G antenna, the Samsung phone reached a download speed of 1.2 gigabits. But the 5G signal didn't reach into the offices higher up in the building.
Verizon installed two 5G antennas above midfield at U.S. Bank Stadium, with more planned before the Minnesota Vikings begin play this fall. In the stadium Thursday, the download speed maxed out around 800 megabits per second. A Verizon spokesman said the speed is expected to increase in the stadium as more antennas are added.
Until Thursday, the network in Minneapolis could only be reached with a Motorola phone that had been modified with a snap-on accessory that housed the 5G-related wireless chips.
Samsung, the world's leading seller of smartphones by units, is investing heavily in the new technology. Its executives said its new phone is more than just a 5G version of its latest Galaxy S10 models. The S10 5G has a bigger screen at 6.7 inches than its 4G models, a bigger battery and a more sophisticated camera.
"The S10 5G is for people who want to be on the forefront," said Adam Kuhn, a Samsung product manager.
It has six camera lenses, two on the front and four on the back. The extra lenses allow the Samsung device to create through software the depth-of-field effects of regular film or digital cameras. The S10 5G is also the first smartphone to create that effect, by blurring or sharpening backgrounds, in video as well as still images.
The company rolled out the same phone in South Korea, where it is based, last month. Carriers there are moving quickly to install 5G network equipment with a plan to have coverage in 80 cities by the end of the year.
Verizon will have 5G networks set up in about 20 U.S. cities by the end of the year but not broadly in any of them.
Sprint plans to make its first 5G networks available in four cities — Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Kansas City — by the end of this month with a phone from LG Electronics Co., the other major South Korean manufacturer.