Too much bandwidth is not enough. That’s the history of the internet in a nutshell, as successive upgrades—from dial-up to broadband, ethernet to Wi-Fi, and wireless to mobile—sated Web surfers’ appetites for a short time before they discovered gluttonous new uses. Broadband led us from “You’ve got mail!” to mainstream e-commerce and YouTube. Smartphones poured gasoline on the bonfires of social media. Next up is 5G, which offers more than another reason to upgrade our phones—it’s poised to transform our viewing experiences, the games we play, and how we get around.
“It’s not just things are getting faster—our behaviors are changing,” says Robert Topol, general manager of Intel’s 5G business. “Everything is becoming more mobile. It’s the thread running through all of these uses.”
As its name implies, 5G is the fifth generation of wireless data standards, with theoretical peak download speeds of 10 gigabits per second—fast enough to slurp down an HD film in seconds—which is more than 300 times the average speed of the current standard in the U.S., 4G LTE. Its true impact won’t be felt for another year or two, as shifting alliances of telcos, tech companies, and media giants invest billions in the hardware, infrastructure, antennas, and new phones needed for widespread adoption. However, when early 5G deployments begin rolling out across the U.S. this year–Verizon has announced four cities, AT&T six, and T-Mobile thirty—subscribers should notice fewer dropped calls and clearer connections, followed by lower network latency and an uptick in speed. Eventually, that entire open pipe will once again be glutted, only this time by machines talking to machines. (More on that in a bit.)
What can we expect before then? Here’s a sneak peek at five areas that the 5G revolution is poised to transform.
From Doom onward, network latency has been the bane of fast-twitch gamers. Your connection lags, your avatar stutters, and before you know it, you’re road kill. Reducing ping—the time in milliseconds (ms) it takes to send and receive data from game servers—is every gamer’s goal. 5G’s official latency is 1ms, compared to its predecessor’s 50ms. That’s not only a boon for serious gamers, but also for the burgeoning market in immersive games designed for casual players on mobile devices. “You’ll play and play more of these games untethered, through your phone, and then broadcast them to a screen at a very high resolution,” Topol says. Gaming will be the first test of 5G’s promise to make computing across multiple devices seamless.
Cord-cutting was just the beginning. The last few years have seen the decoupling of television from the box it traditionally resided in. Verizon’s plan to offer 5G subscribers a free Apple TV box or YouTube TV subscription points to a near future in which TV ditches the television completely. “TV is becoming ambient,” says Topol, meaning it will follow you from device to device, depending on what it has gleaned about your habits. From there, screens may disappear altogether, as 5G has a pipe big enough to make virtual-reality headsets or augmented-reality glasses feasible. “With enough bandwidth, we can have the interface that’s best for that exact moment,” says Brian David Johnson, a futurist-in-residence at Arizona State University. We won’t have to choose, because if we’re lucky, the machines will choose for us.
Smart homes are brilliant in theory, but not so bright in practice. Part of the problem has been bandwidth and network architecture. A smart home performing as intended—one that learns your habits, shares data easily, and operates seamlessly—requires a lot of traffic. 5G attempts to solve these issues two ways. First is how it brings the necessary bandwidth to your house: no fiber required. Instead, it uses a millimeter wave receiver. This device processes the 30-100 GHz band of spectrum harnessed by 5G and attaches to your window, thus replacing the team of technicians digging up your garden with a backhoe. Additionally, once machine-to-machine communication becomes more commonplace, our smart home gadgets will evolve to the point where media and entertainment can seamlessly move with us, between devices and rooms. The ultra-low latency would ensure that intelligent agent/personal assistant functions in our homes work smoothly, enabling unprecedented levels of personalization.
Disrupting your doctor’s waiting room has been a dream for a decade. Rather than waste her time and yours on a precautionary visit, why not deliver a diagnosis via video call? This goes double for rural and remote areas in which health care may be scarce. But things quickly get tricky—the last thing anyone needs is a glitchy connection. With 5G’s combination of bandwidth and low latency, these barriers start to fall—especially for an aging population with decreasing mobility. As the standard matures, 5G will also make it increasingly easier to monitor data from patients’ implants and wearables, while utilizing robotic surgery for remote areas and specialist procedures as, once again, its low latency makes once-risky propositions more feasible.
Once autonomous vehicles start to hit the streets en masse, former drivers will find themselves with a lot of new time on their hands. 5G will allow them to seamlessly work, stream films, or observe the ride through a scrim of augmented reality. AVs will be one the first of what Johnson describes as “sentient tools”—autonomous objects that are socially and culturally aware, combining their data sets with those from other tools to understand users’ needs. “We don’t know what it looks like, but we know it’s coming,” Johnson says. “And 5G enables it.”
This story was created for and commissioned by Intel.