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5G networks

Smartphone makers stake their future on 5G innovations

Samsung and Huawei rush to launch devices that harness faster data speeds

Samsung unveiled its Galaxy Fold smartphone on Feb. 20. The arrival of 5G networks will be a must for users to fully enjoy foldable devices, which open from a smaller cover display to a tablet-sized screen.   © AP

SEOUL/PALO ALTO, U.S./TOKYO -- The race to deliver smartphones compatible with ultrafast 5G networks has begun in earnest as companies bank on data generated from these devices to unearth fresh opportunities in a saturated market.

The new communications standard boasts speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second -- 100 times as fast as fourth-generation predecessor 4G. Next week's MWC Barcelona, formerly the Mobile World Congress, will showcase offerings that take advantage of the technology, to be rolled out in multiple countries throughout 2019 and 2020.

Samsung Electronics has decided to get out in front of MWC Barcelona by ushering in the foldable-smartphone era Wednesday with its Galaxy Fold, which opens from a 4.6-inch cover display to a 7.3-inch tablet screen.

The Fold "breaks new ground because it answers skeptics who say everything possible has been done, that the era of smartphone innovation is over, and the smartphone is a mature technology in a saturated market," said Koh Dong-jin, CEO of Samsung's mobile division, at its unveiling in San Francisco on Wednesday.

"We are here to prove them wrong," he added.

The foldable device will have a 5G version and come out in the U.S. and South Korea next quarter, starting at $1,980. Heavy sales are not expected, given the high price. But the Fold will help Samsung write "the next chapter in mobile innovation" by delivering a new experience "beyond the limitations of a traditional smartphone," Koh said in a news release.

Huawei Technologies and Chinese compatriot Royole are also releasing foldable smartphones with high-resolution OLED screens. Faster 5G networks will allow these devices to smoothly stream high-quality video as companies answer the need for rich content to enjoy on large screens.

The smartphone market, which grew rapidly in the decade since Apple released its first iPhone, now stands at a crossroads. Global shipments retreated more than 4% to about 1.4 billion units in 2018, according to U.S. research company International Data Corp. -- a second straight year of decline.

Samsung is among those seeking a breakthrough with more advanced features on high-end models while cutting prices to expand emerging-country market share. The primary goal is not to reap economies of scale from mass production, but to collect data -- a resource whose value is rising.

Google is expected to release a cheaper smartphone than current models within the year. Software developers that use its Android operating system tend to be strong in low- and mid-priced devices. The company had mainly developed high-end phones until now to avoid cannibalizing its own camp.

In addition to speed, 5G networks are distinguished for their ability to transmit data with almost no lag -- a feature that will form the key foundation for "internet of things" technologies.

That will enable various devices to become gateways for data collection. Smart speakers, smartwatches, cars and electronics will function as channels to collect a wealth of consumer data, for example.

But smartphones are anticipated to be the king of information collection. About 70% of users are on them more than two hours a day, according to research company Mobile Marketing Data Labo. Smartphones can also provide electronic payment and location data.

Businesses' competitiveness will hinge on how they can analyze this data to come up with new services. The arrival of 5G thus adds a new dimension to the significance of each smartphone maker's market share.

Though the appetite for smartphones is shrinking in developed countries and China, demand remains brisk in emerging nations. The Indian market grew 15% in 2018 to 140 million units. China's Xiaomi has used cheap prices to grow rapidly there, surpassing Samsung as the country's top seller last year. Google and other competitors are hurrying to target growth markets with inexpensive options.

The dawn of 5G seems to have split the smartphone market's power struggle into two battles: one over high-end models with advanced functions, and the other in budget-friendly devices.

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