5G is so powerful, it’s sending back signals from the future. The technology is barely out of the experimental phase, with the first official 5G standard released just last month. The first partial deployments are expected later this year or early next year, and full commercial deployments probably won’t be complete until the early 2020s. Yet many booths at CES in Las Vegas this week are festooned with 5G exhibits, and conference sessions devoted to the tech are jam-packed.
The anticipation is high because as the technical realities of 5G have come into focus, engineers have also begun to realize that it’s going to offer a lot more than “4G, only faster.” In addition to high speeds, 5G has the potential to handle many more mobile devices at the same time without network congestion, and handle those connections with low latency.
Not having to worry about network congestion means that designers can rely on connectivity in a way they can’t today, and low latency means that real-time computations can be made with the assistance of services running in the cloud. And that means a huge boost for artificial intelligence software and all of its associated technologies, such as autonomous cars, voice-controlled systems like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, and robotics.
To take the example of an autonomous car, 5G would allow the vehicle to constantly exchange large amounts of data with the cloud. The car would constantly report its local conditions, and use similar reports from other cars to gauge how best to act in any given instant. Essentially, every car would be updating the same map in every moment and benefit from the consequent boost in collective intelligence.
Vehicles will also be able to communicate directly with each other to most efficiently move through traffic lights, and so on (Qualcomm published a nice white paper [PDF] on this last May that provides more detail). While there are competing technologies for vehicle-to-vehicle communications such as DSRC, the economies of scale alone will make 5G tough to beat.
Low latency will also be vital for virtual reality and augmented reality. Currently, VR relies on headsets that are tethered to powerful computers for best results. (For example, the IEEE’s booth at CES this year has a demo based on the HTV Vive system, which works great, but attendees have to wear a backpack containing a computer in addition to the VR headset and gloves to experience it.) 5G could open the door to lightweight, fully mobile solutions that can respond to the wearer’s movements without illusion-destroying, and nausea-inducing, lag. 5G will also allow creators to capture live high-resolution 360-degree video in the field and stream it to audiences for the ultimate in immersive viewing.
Many other technologies are likely to be enhanced by 5G (and cheaper access to legacy 4G systems), including the Internet of Things and applications we haven’t yet conceived of, but which could soon become vital to our lives (think of the entire sharing economy that has been built on top of the simple ability to install apps on our phones). 5G is likely to become the glue that binds many of our critical technologies together, which will put mobile carriers at the center of modern global civilization in a big way. By CES 2028, we may have even forgotten they started as phone companies.
Stephen Cass is the special projects editor at IEEE Spectrum. He currently helms Spectrum's Hands On column, and is also responsible for interactive projects such as the Top Programming Languages app. He has a bachelor's degree in experimental physics from Trinity College Dublin.