There’s a reason 5G seems like the newest tech buzzword—because it is.
The next generation of mobile internet technology occupies a space in the tech world as part of the so-called “AI, 8K, 5G” vision—a scenario that wasn’t present in the shift from 3G to 4G.
“It’s huge,” Dr. Shafiq Rab, chief information officer at Rush University System for Health, said of 5G. Rush plans to be the first organization in the U.S. to formally try using 5G in a hospital setting, thanks to a contract it announced with AT&T earlier this year. “It’s not like 3G to 4G, which was incremental,” he said.
5G is the follow-up to 4G, which is the network in use by many mobile devices today—if you’re in the U.S., you’ve likely used a 4G network if you’ve seen the “LTE” logo in the corner of your smartphone screen.
The shift from 3G to 4G nearly a decade ago spurred changes in daily life, bringing faster mobile connectivity that ultimately paved the way for video-streaming a la Netflix and on-demand services such as Uber. But 5G is slated to be bigger.
That’s because of its significantly quicker speed, lower latency and higher bandwidth.
5G isn’t just a label. Its specifications, which are set by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, suggest it will provide mobile speeds 10 to 100 times faster than today’s. 3GPP is the primary standards organization that sets specifications for cellular network technologies.
And “it’s more than speed,” said Ben Arnold, the Consumer Technology Association’s senior director of innovation and trends. “You’re able to transmit more data, and there’s less of a lag.”
That could mean downloading a movie—or, as a more common case in healthcare, downloading a data-heavy file, such as an MRI—in just seconds.
But it’s not as simple as flipping a switch to change all 4G networks to 5G. There’s a significant infrastructure investment. 5G primarily uses “small cells,” or radio equipment placed on existing structures, to transmit data to and from connected devices. Small cells are lower power than the 100-foot-plus cell towers seen today, but are deployed more frequently. In a city, that might mean every few blocks.
And once 5G goes live in a city, that doesn’t mean residents will be able to use it.
Most devices out today don’t support 5G connectivity. While major developers do plan to release 5G-compatible devices, such as smartphones, this year—and a handful already have—it’s likely people won’t be regularly accessing a 5G network until at least 2020.
“We’ll see 5G smartphones sell this year, and we’ll see some of the infrastructure built up,” Arnold said, but there’s also a delay in waiting for consumers to purchase these devices. “I think maybe 2021 is when we begin to see the composition of the market shift in a meaningful way.”