We can expect to begin hearing more and more about the new telecom 5G network over the next year. Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) both have plans to roll out 5G trials in several U.S. cities over the course of 2017.
Verizon recently announced that it will roll out fixed-line 5G trials in 11 U.S. cities in the first half of this year: Ann Arbor, Atlanta, Bernardsville (N.J.), Brockton (Mass.), Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Sacramento, Seattle and Washington, D.C. AT&T has plans to roll out trials of wireless 5G in Austin and Indianapolis later this year.
What is 5G? At this point it's a moving target of new technologies and developing specifications that are not expected to be finalized until around 2020. The first commercially capable 5G networks are not expected until a few years after that. The trials that the two telecom giants are planning will test some, but not all, of the new technologies that eventually will have to work together to deliver 5G networks.
5G networks are being developed with two primary goals: much faster data-transfer speed and more reliable service. The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has a good explanation of some of the basic technologies being developed to provide wireless networks that can deliver up to 100 gigabits per second (Gbps) to a smartphone. That's fast enough to download an entire movie in high-definition in less than a second, compared with about 10 minutes on today's 4G/LTE networks.
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Verizon will be testing a fixed-line 5G network to begin with. Unlike wireless cell systems, the fixed-line system receives a cell signal and then delivers the data through an Ethernet cable to homes and offices. AT&T has already run a brief test on a fixed-line network, and the wireless tests it plans for later this year are expected to deliver download speeds of up to 400 megabits per second (Mbps). 4G/LTE networks today deliver a top download speed of about 12 Mbps.
Eventually, carriers and smartphone manufacturers will have a settled specification on delivering 5G speeds wirelessly to smartphones, self-driving cars and all the devices that will make up the Internet of Things (IoT). It won't be cheap and it won't happen overnight, but really high-speed networks are on their way