5G, Explained

The tech will be incredibly fast, but what are the implications of that type of speed?

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With 5G wireless service operating at peak speeds, you could theoretically download a full-length HD movie in the time it takes you to read this sentence.

OK, it might take through this paragraph or the next one—many of the details and realities of how the next generation of cell service will actually perform aren’t known yet. What is clear is that the wireless industries and the various sectors that work alongside them have staked a lot in 5G being exponentially faster than what’s currently available, probably by a factor of 10 to 100.

The implications of that type of speed go far beyond movies. Experts tout it as an answer to everything from real-time driverless car coordination and remote healthcare to mixed-reality streaming and in-stadium sports replay broadcasts.

But there’s still a long road ahead for this superspeed datatopia of cell companies’ dreams. While all four of the country’s biggest carriers have vowed to roll out some form of 5G service by the end of this year, analysts say it will likely take until at least 2020 for it to develop to the point where it fully lives up to the hype.

When that time comes, though, it could open a number of new tech markets around web-connected devices, infrastructure projects and media, among many other areas. Some industry watchers have suggested that whichever country achieves 5G first will have a good chance of owning all that business activity.

Thus, 5G deployment has turned into something of a global arms race, one that various reports say the U.S. is losing to China and South Korea. President Donald Trump’s administration has indicated that catching up is a national priority, and telecoms are happy to latch on to this idea.

In any case, the advent of 5G could prove to be a turning point for the wireless industry unlike any previous generation has been. It could pave the way for smart cities with traffic lights that talk to your car or power grids administered through wireless service. That, and fully connected homes where your refrigerator’s internet won’t lag and Netflix comes in ultra-HD 3D. People may even start actually using virtual reality.

Wait, but what is it?

The “G” in 5G—or 4G or 3G—indicates a generation of wireless technology. That is, every decade or so, a bunch of wireless trade groups and standards agencies get together to agree on a new set of rules for a faster, more advanced type of cell network. Then wireless companies go out and upgrade their cell towers and install new phone chips to make it happen.

Those groups haven’t finalized 5G standards yet, but they took a big step toward doing so last summer when a major international consortium signed off on the last piece of a tentative framework. The rules vary depending on cell frequencies, tower construction and the types of devices in use. Unsurprisingly, there’s also a lot of variation in the levels of service carriers are currently calling 5G.

The authority ultimately responsible for coordinating standards, the U.N.’s International Telecom Union, or ITU, has said that by 2020, each 5G cell should be able to deliver download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (mbps) to at least 1 million devices per square kilometer. (By comparison, Verizon says its 4G LTE network offers download speeds of between five and 12 mbps).

Another critical consideration is latency, or the time it takes the network to respond after a request to open a webpage or a video is sent. Current networks take around 20 milliseconds, but the ITU says 5G should take no longer than one millisecond.

How did we get here? 

Animation: Breana Mallamaci for Adweek

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