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5G data is coming, and it will supercharge your internet connection

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Next-generation, high-speed 5G data is coming … eventually.

BARCELONA — 5G wireless data is coming, and it will change everything. It will be in your house, your office and the places in between. It will not just follow your car, but speak to it. 5G wants you to be comfortable about all this, because 5G cares about you.

Maybe I’m laying on the hype a little thick for this future advance in wireless broadband. But I’m not overselling it any more than many participants at Mobile World Congress did last week.

“5G will connect everybody and everything,” declared Tim Baxter, president and chief operating officer of Samsung Electronics America, during the company’s presentation at the conference.

Stéphane Richard, CEO and chairman of France’s Orange Group, had a shorter phrase for 5G’s appeal at a keynote Tuesday: “5G will be key to a better me.”

So  when will we be able to use this internet magic bullet? Not soon enough, it turns out.

The basics: speed and responsiveness

Two basic things set 5G apart from today’s 4G LTE (“Long Term Evolution”) technology. One is speed. 5G promises data connections that are normally reserved for the kind of gigabit fiber-optic connections that many Americans don’t even have access to. The second is exceedingly low “latency”— the time it takes for a single packet of data reach its destination, which would make apps and services much more responsive.

Today’s wireless broadband is generous with bandwidth but stingy on latency. For instance, PCMag.com’s nationwide 2016 testing found that Verizon (VZ) offered America’s fastest LTE, with downloads averaging a speedy 27.79 megabits per second. Its latency, though, measured a pokey 60.97 milliseconds.

5G, however, promises to drive down latency to below 1 ms, what you’d get on a hard-wired network connection. That means apps that react far faster to your inputs.

Do human users need that kind of responsiveness on a mobile device? Probably not. But, as Richard noted, self-driving cars and robot surgeons will.

So will streaming virtual reality. At Samsung’s event, Verizon chief information and technology architect Roger Gurnani said 5G would allow “virtual amusement parks where you can experience immersive entertainment and amusement without having to stand in long lines.”

Verizon is also betting that 5G will replace wired home connections. The company will start “pre-commercial” testing in 11 U.S. cities in the coming months. In January, AT&T (T) announced plans to test its 5G network to deliver its DirecTV Now video service in Austin, TX.

What’s more, 5G networks should support far more devices at once — although if this means that 5G users in Washington have sufficient bandwidth on 2021’s Inauguration Day, I will be pleasantly surprised.

The obstacles

5G networks, though, will require much more infrastructure. The entire concept rides on using high-frequency spectrum with more bandwidth and less range, which means constructing far more cell sites and providing each with high-capacity fiber-optic connections back to the rest of the network.

“The problem really is the amount of [capital expenditure],” said EY global telecommunications leader Prashant Singhal during the show. He estimated the cost of building the infrastructure for 5G networks at $800 to $900 billion worldwide. That’s before carriers start spending in spectrum auctions to get those airwaves. “Somebody will have to pay for that.”

Carriers will also have to build out those 5G cell sites everywhere to support things like 5G-linked autonomous vehicles if, as Orange’s Richard suggested, vehicle-to-vehicle automated interactions are going to make stop lights “absolutely useless.”

Otherwise, some autonomous features would stop working outside of 5G coverage.

Finally, remember that carriers have yet to agree on a single detailed definition of 5G. As Andrus Ansip, European Commission vice president and leader of the EU’s digital single market effort, said during an MWC panel: “The world does not yet have any 5G standards or specifications.”

Ignore the hype for now

Verizon’s Gurnani suggested we’d see a 5G phone at next year’s MWC, but the industry consensus for 5G’s arrival as a mass-market reality in the U.S. remains sometime closer to 2020.

You may see services advertised as “5G” sooner — at an MWC event, PCMag’s Sascha Segan reported that both Sprint (S) and T-Mobile (TMUS) might advertise upcoming gigabit-capable upgrades to 4G LTE “5G.” If that rebranding takes off, don’t be surprised to see AT&T and Verizon apply the same label to the even faster “LTE Advanced Pro.”

If the real 5G lives up to all of its many promises, the difference it makes will be noticeable even on top of gigabit LTE connections. But wireless carriers have years of work ahead of them.

“The challenge is always on scalability and ensuring that you’ve got the same quality of connectivity and speeds wherever you go and whatever you do,” said EY’s Singhal. “It’s too early to really say that 5G is going to connect everything and everywhere, but it’s a great ambition.”

Disclosure: Verizon is in the process of buying Yahoo Finance’s parent company, Yahoo.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.