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5G rides one last wave of hype before reality sinks in

5G, hyped to the point of exhaustion, will once again be the talk of Las Vegas when CES 2019 rolls around.

But as in previous editions of the big tech show, it'll largely be talk.

That's because only a few consumers will have actually experienced a real 5G network by the time the show kicks off -- AT&T is the only US carrier committed to launching its next-generation cellular service this year. Most carriers won't be launching until sometime in early 2019, but it's unlikely to be as early as CES, which unofficially kicks off Jan. 6.

Though 5G may be quiet from an announcement perspective, expect a lot of backroom intrigue at the conference as vendors quietly show off some of their early products and as key players like Verizon and chip giants Qualcomm and Intel lay out their plans for the coming year and beyond.

"Behind the scenes -- that's when a lot of the 5G discussions will happen," Gartner analyst Mark Hung said.

After years of promises and demonstrations, CES, and 2019 broadly, marks a turning point where 5G goes from hype to reality. The technology promises massive speed boosts -- think downloading a season of Game of Thrones onto your phone in minutes -- as well as the potential to connect more devices around us and spark new areas of development, like streaming augmented reality.

"It's no surprise that 5G will continue to dominate the conversations at CES," said Niklas Heuveldop, president of Ericsson North America.

The mobile industry has been toiling away at the less sexy aspects of 5G: swapping out equipment, adding new radios, and testing how antennas pick up the new high-frequency radio airwaves. Over the next few months, the carriers will begin flipping the switch on these networks.

But until then, you can expect companies to squeeze a little bit more hype out of the 5G stone.

5G newsmakers

The biggest potential 5G newsmaker at the show is Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg, who could spill the details on the carrier's own launch. The company has stayed vague about its plans, saying only that its service would debut early next year, and tossing in teases of devices like a 5G Samsung smartphone and a Moto Z3 Mod attachment with 5G capabilities.

Vestberg, of course, will already claim leadership in 5G thanks to the launch of Verizon's home broadband service in October. But the company used a proprietary version of the high-speed wireless technology, and some in the industry quibble with the 5G label. Verizon has said it will expand its home broadband deployment in 2019 once it switches to the industry standard.

A spokesman for Verizon wasn't available to comment on the company's plans for CES.

Qualcomm, meanwhile, will be shouting from the rooftops about 5G, even if its announcements will likely be more car-related. The company just spent the earlier part of this month talking about a new processor and the prospect of 5G smartphones -- partly to undermine rivals Intel and Apple.

"We are fortunate to play a central role with our partners in accelerating the commercialization of 5G and couldn't be more excited about what's in store for 5G in 2019," Pete Lancia, vice president of marketing for Qualcomm, said in an interview. "CES will serve as a great 5G kickoff for the year."

The lack of news is partly attributable to schedule, and the fact that CES happens a little too early in 2019.

"The problem with these big shows is that the tech cycles are not necessarily producing something big every year, and coming up with announcements just to be part of the news cycle is not easy," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies.

Nonphone applications

Though you may not see many 5G smartphones on the show floor, expect to see announcements of applications taking advantage of the higher speeds. Hung said to expect more virtual reality and AR services announced at the show.

"Whether they are announcing or demoing new products, showing off prototypes or highlighting 5G experiences, I would expect 5G to be prominent throughout CES this year," Qualcomm's Lancia said.

Qualcomm rival Intel will likely also talk about autonomous driving technology, given that Amnon Shashua, CEO of its Mobileye vision-based driving software unit, will be a keynote speaker. Intel has its own press conference, where 5G will play a key role.

An Intel spokesman wasn't available to comment on its conference plans.

The automakers themselves could talk about the integration of 5G, even if that's much further down the line. Though some companies have dabbled with integrating LTE into their vehicles, experts say they can tap into 5G for better in-vehicle entertainment options, remote maintenance and, ultimately, car-to-car communication for autonomous driving.

"The car companies will be talking about 5G," Hung said. "Their design cycles are longer, so they'll talk about it now."

Volkswagen has a keynote speaker at CES, but the automaker said it wouldn't have much of a presence.

Ford, which has been among the most aggressive automakers in embracing technology, wasn't available to comment on its CES plans.

Looking to MWC

The rest of the mobile industry may be holding off until Mobile World Congress for its big 5G announcements. The wireless-centric trade show, held in Barcelona, takes place in late February.

"The timing for some segments, like phones and connected PCs, seems to align better with MWC," Milanesi said.

We saw a bit of a tease this month at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Tech Summit, where Samsung committed to making a 5G smartphone for Verizon and AT&T, and OnePlus said it would launch its first 5G phone with UK carrier EE.

But experts warn that despite the hype, there'll be only a trickle of 5G smartphones this year.

"The 5G device market is actually years behind the reality of widespread adoption," said Ian Campbell, chief executive of OnScale, which provides computer-assisted engineering software for the development of gadgets. "For 5G mobile devices like smartphones, the challenge engineers face is miniaturizing and optimizing the performance of the radio frequency front end."

In other words, it's tricky stuff. And with 5G networks just now getting launched, expect a bumpy ride as engineers work out the kinks.

Still, many expect the 5G news to come pouring out at MWC.

Many in the industry have been eagerly waiting for years for 5G to show up.

What's another few months?