Never before has a wireless technology protocol garnered so much glowing press. But 5G is a different kind of upgrade, one that could radically alter the way we live and work.
If it lives up to billing, 5G-enabled wireless systems and networking gear will blast data 100 times faster than current 4G LTE data systems. When it begins a long rollout at the end of 2018, 5G will also merge the previously separate pathways for voice and data services, allowing for more flexible usage across the board.
Augmented or virtual reality applications, for instance, are just one use case that 5G aims to disrupt. “Today, all interactions are sent to the central cloud and back again, even if the people you are sharing with are within sight of you,” says Jason Hoffman, chairman and CEO of MobiledgeX, an edge computing company founded by Deutsche Telecom. “All processing is done on the device. Crunching video to overlay 3D animation is very computer intensive and battery draining. And the experience is not shared by each person, or each player in a game. It’s an inefficient and unsatisfying way to do things.”
Enter 5G to relieve some of those headaches. Unlike 4G and previous wireless iterations, 5G will more easily incorporate a mishmash of smaller base stations and big tower installations and will more easily hop onto Wi-Fi frequencies. This means 5G will complete tasks more quickly and transmit information without causing interference between users.
So, what will the new, less-encumbered 5G communication make possible that we’ve only mostly dreamed about? We interviewed a number of 5G experts and technologists to get their insights. Here are five areas where they see 5G making its mark.
1. Cord-Cutting En Masse:
With the potential to push download speeds that approach or surpass those of terrestrial cable and also deliver satellite-level video quality, 5G will likely accelerate the ongoing wave of cord cutting. This has the wireless phone companies, which have long drooled at the prospect of persuading cable customers to switch, plotting to accelerate customer acquisition efforts.
Verizon has already announced it is planning to offer a free Apple 4K TV and a free subscription to YouTube TV to early adopters of 5G. For the 50 million U.S. homes that have only one broadband provider offering speeds over 25 megabits per second (the FCC threshold for broadband), 5G could prove welcome relief from high prices and poor customer service, too. The upshot? Everyone will have at least two broadband TV providers to pick from.
2. Distributed AI:
At present, most of the computing that powers AI systems lives in far-flung data centers. This means that the most sophisticated AI systems have not been able to train their continuous learning algorithms on feedback loops in the field in order to perform real-time assessments and bolster machine learning. Rather, the data has to be captured and shipped away to be processed.
5G is arriving in tandem with a newer communications-technology paradigm called edge computing, which delivers more widely distributed computing capabilities. The result is that newer forms of AI will run on fast 5G in the field across micro-data centers located within communities, including on the smartphones we carry with us.
Nirav Desai, senior partner at geospatial computing consultancy Moonbeam, says the breakthrough already seems overdue. “Depending on how the infrastructure chooses to leverage this hardware, it could enable cognitive services on the local cloud to help with immersive AI tasks, like object detection, spatial mapping, computer vision and voice AI.”
3. High-Speed Data Backbone for Autonomous Tech
The new technology will also address a primary concern raised today in the autonomous vehicle sector, which is what to do when an onboard driving system fails—an especially vexing problem if the car lacks a steering wheel, as did some of Google’s autonomous prototypes.
5G should be fast enough to allow humans in control centers to take over a malfunctioning vehicle and to remotely pilot semi-trailer trucks once they exit the ordered white lines of interstate highways and enter complex urban centers.
4. The Doctor Is In—24/7
Telemedicine, and its more complex relative robotic surgery, require stable data connections. This has ruled out many types of telesurgeries in the field. But 5G will allow for the use of surgical and other medical robots in remote locations far from doctors’ offices, letting surgeons or specialists travel virtually to the location of their patients.
“With 5G, medical procedures will become more accurate, precise and surgeons will have the communications speeds that they need to save lives,” says Dan Burgar, a VR and AR consultant based in Vancouver, Canada, who has tracked telemedicine for a number of years.
5. Every Experience Will Be Augmented
Like the “Force” in Star Wars, a mesh of content and communications that permeate life and blend analog and digital worlds could soon blur the distinction between digital and real life. 5G is a key enabler of that vision.
“In the past, using immersive technology like augmented reality or virtual reality was an experience, something that was separated from life,” says Tyler Gates, managing principal of immersive and interactive content studio Brightline Interactive.
“With 5G, everything we see in VR experiences can become part of our regular existence—a web connection across video, chat, augmented maps and more—that we tap into all the time and have it feel like a natural part of the world,” says Gates. This means every sporting event can become an augmented or virtual event, for example, where a mixed audience of virtual and live attendees might share a space, hear the roar of both crowds and see the same scoreboard content, whether courtside or far away, and be able to chat with and high-five attendees coexisting in both worlds.
Some experts caution that, like the internet itself, 5G represents such a disruptive force that new classes and types of businesses will emerge. Certainly, this is true, but existing businesses will also need to adapt to a new reality of fast, ubiquitous connectivity as the IoT finally gets a flexible and omnipresent arterial infrastructure.
But there is, of course, a very tangible, closer-to-home benefit in the short term—everything you do on your smartphone will soon load a whole lot faster in a 5G world.