5G phones could cost $200 to $300 more, says OnePlus CEO

OnePlus has built a reputation for offering premium phones without a premium price to match — we called the OnePlus 6T “the most affordable flagship you can get.”

But the company’s first 5G phone, announced this morning at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Tech Summit in Maui, won’t be cheap. OnePlus CEO Pete Lau tells that his company is working on both the new 5G phone and existing 4G phones in parallel, and that he expects his 5G phone will likely cost $200 to $300 more. “It’s hard to know because there’s a lot of specifics still to look at, but it’s likely in the neighborhood of $200-300 more,” Lau says, via translator.

That might not be the case for all new 5G smartphones, though. “You may see some OEMs try to monetize as much as they can their existing customer base… on the other hand you may see folks try to gain share and use price as one of those tools,” says Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon, in a roundtable interview later in the day. When I corner him later about Lau’s $200-$300 comment, he suggests it’s a little high: “I’ve seen some people being way more aggressive [on price].”

But to be frank, it’s the first time we’ve gotten any idea what 5G might cost when it arrives by the end of the year. Most companies here at in Maui have been extremely cagey about pricing, with both AT&T and Verizon executives telling that they can’t disclose what they haven’t yet announced in terms of pricing or plans. Motorola, with its 5G Mod, deferred to its carrier partner Verizon, and Netgear, with its Nighthawk 5G Hotspot, deferred to AT&T. Samsung only has a proof of concept at the show, but has announced two phones so far.

Lau says that he’s pursuing a 5G phone regardless of the price because his customers demand it, and because it’s important to get out early so his engineers can start working through the nuances of 5G which will help them deliver future phones. “5G is an important trend with its own tremendous challenges… we’re working to understand the technology as quickly as possible,” he says.

And one of those challenges — a familiar one for OnePlus — will be building 5G phones for multiple cellular carriers that operate on different frequencies. Lau expects it’ll be even more difficult to take a phone from one carrier to another with 5G than it was for 4G, and the company says it hasn’t yet seen a solution that would cover many different carriers around the world. “5G will be particularly difficult to have a device that covers all of the world, or even most of the world’s networks,” says Lau.

It’s also worth noting that for now, OnePlus’s 5G phone is targeting just one type of 5G network — the slower-speeds-but-wider-coverage-area “sub-6” spectrum used by EE, its first carrier partner in Europe, compared to the speedier millimeter wave that AT&T and Verizon are focusing on first in the United States.

Lau says that millimeter wave creates its own challenges, and a nice-looking handset is one of them, likely due to the different design required to fit multiple antennas. Motorola tells it had to place the 5G Moto Mod’s four millimeter wave antennas in various distinct places around the device so users could hold it in various orientations without blocking the signal, and Samsung’s prototype has an unusual new notch.

“On the product level, it’s much more complex than 4G, so a significantly higher level of challenge, especially millimeter wave,” says Lau. “It appears impossible to make a nice-looking flagship device, for now.” That could be why he won’t commit to when the United States might see a 5G-enabled OnePlus phone, though he says the company’s watching US carriers closely to see when it might be possible.

In the meanwhile, OnePlus is working on a McLaren-branded revision of its OnePlus 6T, basking in its recent T-Mobile partnership and (finally) support for Verizon’s LTE network in the United States. The company says that in the first 30 days the Verizon-compatible OnePlus 6T was on the market, sales jumped 249 percent compared to the OnePlus 6’s first month on the market.