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What is 5G? What will it do? And when will we get it?

Daniel Howley
·Technology Editor

With news that the government will build a 5G cellular network being reported and then just as quickly dismissed by officials, many Americans have found themselves asking: What the heck is 5G anyway?

The long and short of it is that 5G is a faster kind of cellular data connectivity. Faster even than the 4G LTE you probably used to load this very webpage on your smartphone. Of course, in reality it’s a bit more complicated than that. Allow me to explain.

So many Gs

Let’s start with the basics. The invisible radio waves that connect your smartphone to the internet are called 4G LTE. The G stands for generation, while LTE stands for long-term evolution, which means 4G LTE is the fourth-generation long-term evolution wireless connectivity.

Of course, there were three previous generations of connectivity: 1G, 2G and 3G. Each iteration increased our ability to connect our phones with the world. 1G was analog and allowed us to make mobile calls. 2G improved voice capacity and text messages. 3G gave us relatively fast mobile data for things like web browsing, some music streaming and downloads, mapping apps and more.

Finally, there’s 4G LTE, which is the reason websites load quickly. It allows you to stream high-definition video through Netflix, play online games from your phone and check your in-home security camera on the go.

5G is the next iteration of wireless connectivity and is expected to have wide-ranging implications for technology and the economy. What’s more, it will result in an explosion of new devices coming online.

What will 5G do?

5G will offer three main benefits: Faster speeds, lower latency and increased bandwidth. For reference, the government considers anything with speeds above 25 megabits per second a broadband connection. The fastest LTE speeds I’ve gotten on my own devices has been about 70 Mbps. That’s pretty darn fast, but not quite as fast as my 200 Mbps home cable modem. But 5G will be even faster than that, offering speeds from hundreds of megabits per second up to gigabits, or 1,000 megabits, per second.

That kind of speed is great, but without an equally low latency, it’s nothing. Latency refers to how fast a piece of data takes to get to its destination. In other words, how long it takes the hit Netflix show “Stranger Things” to get from your home to Netflix’s (NFLX) servers and back once you request to watch it.

5G latency will be so low that you’ll have near-instantaneous reaction times to requests. And that will prove enormously important for applications like self-driving cars. By adding 5G connections to such vehicles, self-driving cars will be able to send and receive information fast enough to avoid accidents with other autonomous vehicles.

Then there’s the bandwidth 5G will provide. Think of bandwidth as the size of a roadway. A two-lane road can only carry a small number of cars at a time before causing a backup. But a 12-lane superhighway can carry a massive number of vehicles without issue. The larger the bandwidth, in this example, the road, the more data, or vehicles, a connection can carry.

You’ve likely noticed what happens when bandwidth becomes congested. If you’ve ever been at a coffee shop or hotel with a large number of people, your internet connection becomes almost unusable due to the amount of traffic it’s trying to handle. With 5G, though, bandwidth will grow to a degree that thousands of individual devices will be able to connect to cell towers at once without issue.

The implications for that are massive, and will usher in truly connected cities where traffic lights, street lights, road sensors, vehicles, signs and a litany of other previously unconnected objects and structures come online and are able to talk to each other. That will allow for far more efficient traffic flow, improve self-driving vehicle deployment and allow for more intelligent route mapping.

It’s not just about traffic, though. 5G will make mobile virtual reality and augmented reality more viable, and enable businesses to track packages via built-in radios.

Qualcomm (QCOM), which makes wireless modems for many of today’s smartphones, says that the technology could have a similar impact on the world as electrification, with every device, whether at home, in the office or in a vehicle, connected to each other.

Here’s what you need to know about 5G, the next generation of cellular connectivity.
Here’s what you need to know about 5G, the next generation of cellular connectivity.

How and when will it work?

I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that you can expect 5G nationwide by 2020. That’s inline with the wireless industry trend of upgrading connectivity technologies every decade. 1G came out in the 1980s, while 2G was launched in the 1990s. 3G hit the market around the 2000s, and 4G LTE took off in the 2010s. And now carriers are set to roll out 5G by the beginning of the next decade.

The bad news is, it won’t be as ubiquitous as 4G LTE for a while after that. Worse still, it won’t work with your current smartphone.

That’s because 5G will require all new antennas and cell sites to work. What’s more, 5G with millimeter wave technology, which is incredibly fast and offers low latency and wide bandwidth, will make participating carriers like Verizon (VZ) (Yahoo Finance’s parent company) build cell sites on multiple towers and poles to maximize efficiency.

Millimeter wave technology is also difficult to work with since it can be easily blocked by things like cars and other people. So carriers and technology companies are working to ensure that such connections are able to overcome those issues.

Don’t expect 4G LTE to go away anytime soon either. 4G will serve as a backup for 5G connections when there are no compatible towers nearby. In fact, 4G LTE is still being perfected itself, which means speeds for those connections will continue to increase, though it will never be as fast as 5G.

For now, you can continue to enjoy your relatively fast 4G LTE connection and stream HD movies or play HQTrivia without much issue. But when 5G finally hits the market, you’ll need to prepare for a whole new world.

More from Dan:

Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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