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?
Here’s a brief history of cell phones:
Throughout the 1800s, various inventors began to notice instances of electric sparks causing strange behavior in nearby conductors. By the turn of the 20th century, they had identified this invisible force as electromagnetic radiation—which travels in waves—and transmitted it over short distances. A system was devised to toggle the strength of the waves up and down to encode sound waves, and the AM radio was born.
Radio phones and other mobile communications devices followed shortly afterwards—a generation retroactively labelled 0G—but, like radios, they were confined to a limited set of wave frequencies and not viable for mass use. In 1947, engineers at Bell Labs formulated an plan to fix that problem that would eventually evolve into modern cellular networks. Land would be divided into hexagonal cells, each with its own short-range radio tower assigned to a different set of frequencies from neighboring cells. The towers would be connected to one another with landlines to form a network.
It took a few decades for the technology and market resources to catch up with the idea, but the first official 1G cellular network debuted in Japan in 1979. The technology made its way to Europe and the United States in the early 1980s.
The second generation took the technology digital for the first time. That means that instead of encoding sound waves in radio signals, the broadcasts now carried the strings of 1s and 0s used to digitally reassemble the input sound, making for crisper quality. The switch to digital allowed for data of any kind, including SMS texts, picture messages and other multimedia communications, to be transferred in the same manner for the first time. But with data speeds averaging about four kilobytes per second, the network was still a far cry from high-speed internet access.
The first 3G networks, which debuted in 1998, eventually boosted data speeds 100-fold and allowed phones to offer internet access, video calls and streaming video. The upgrade to 4G and LTE came not long after the first smartphones in 2008 and brought cell networks to what we know them as today.
When is 5G coming?
AT&T rolled out a form of 5G at the end of 2018, but with no compatible smartphones on the market yet, it requires a separate hotspot device to use. The carrier has also caused industry consternation over its misleading rebranding of some parts of its 4G LTE network as “5G-Evolution,” which is supposed to denote a step toward 5G. Verizon has already begun to roll out residential, or fixed, 5G networks in select U.S. cities and plans to expand to a hotspot-based mobile 5G sometime early this year. Sprint and T-Mobile have also promised mobile 5G networks by the first half of the year.
Despite this breakneck pace, however, the first 5G networks may not live up to the full potential of the technology, and there’s no guarantee carriers will be able to follow through on their ambitious goals.
What will it take to switch to 5G?
The process of rewiring systems for a new set of rules every 10 years or so is expensive. Phone companies have to pay governments for new spectrum rights—that is, licenses to broadcast over specific ranges of frequencies—and reconfigure or replace equipment in tens of thousands of cells. Chipmakers like Qualcomm and Intel need to create new hardware for phones to pick up the signals, which are in turn licensed to phone manufacturers like Apple and Nokia. All of that new equipment requires new or updated software.
The upgrade to 5G is set to cost much more than any previous generational transition. That’s in part because much of it is being built to transmit super high-frequency waves less than 10 millimeters in length. Wavelengths that short don’t fare well through buildings, bad weather or any number of other obstacles and were thus considered impractical for mass commercial use until very recently.