Since cellular service first popped up for consumers four decades ago, it’s been all about phones – from brick phones to flip phones to smartphones to today’s 4G LTE handsets that stream music and video, deliver pinpoint directions and hail a ride from Uber.

Now fifth-generation 5G wireless technology is rolling out in the U.S. and elsewhere globally. These much-hyped networks are still about phones, especially in early deployments when the emphasis is on faster speeds for high-definition video streaming and instant access to workplace apps via the Internet cloud.

But as 5G matures, it’s about connecting a lot more than just smartphones. The technology has been designed to create a fabric for fast, reliable and secure connectivity to things ranging from driver assisted cars to health-care devices to smart cities infrastructure.

“There is probably no technology right now that is more talked about in terms of what impact it will have on the future than 5G because all the things we want to do are dependent on connectivity, and right now it is the fastest, most reliable connectivity being built,” said Daniel Newman, principal analyst at industry consulting firm Futurum Research.

Out of the gate, 5G is expected to deliver peak speeds up to five times faster than today’s 4G LTE. Over the long haul, 5G aims to deliver speeds 20 times faster.

And it promises to eventually deliver a 10-fold improvement in transmission lag times, enabling cellular to power things sensitive to delays such as virtual-reality headsets, immersive mobile gaming and industrial robots.

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5G has its skeptics. They doubt whether the technology delivers enough improvement over 4G LTE to become a must-have service for consumers, at least in the early years.

“As I sit here in my office on my mobile phone with 4G, I get 175 megabits per second with 20 milliseconds latency, so if you deliver me a gigabit per second with 10 milliseconds latency, am I going to notice the difference? Probably not,” said Richard Windsor, publisher of Radio Free Mobile and a longtime wireless industry analyst. “Which means why would I pay for it?”

The promise of 5G

With 5G, connected power grids could tap cloud computing to create artificial intelligence algorithms so when a tree falls on a line, the grid automatically adjusts to minimize outages and heal itself.

5G connected cars could sync to stoplights and other infrastructure to improve traffic flow, while vehicles automatically track the movements of other cars and pedestrians nearby to help avoid accidents.

Factories could leverage 5G to more easily reconfigure equipment to produce different products – boosting efficiency and lowering costs. Connected assembly line robots could instantly reposition an off-center part. Massive cranes at ports could adjust on the fly to the weight of cargo being loaded on ships.

Logistics, fleet management, education, video security with facial recognition, medical imaging, enterprise storage as a service and even retail are some of the industries that could mine the speed, bandwidth, reliability and low latency of 5G to disrupt the status quo.

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“It is pretty exciting times to create something that is almost a platform for innovation where other players come in and tap into it,” said Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, a director at industry research firm Strategy Analytics. “You can have people turn that into hype. But at the same time, it is building something that is a bit future proof and very useful as an open building block to create connected societies.”

For consumers, the lure of 5G in initial rollouts is video. Streaming 4K movies could become as seamless as streaming music is today on 4G. At a sporting event or concert, everyone with a smartphone could become a live broadcaster.

The low lag times of 5G – or latency – also could spark mobile gaming that’s on par with console gaming, and new services that don’t exist today could emerge from the bells and whistles that come with 5G.

“I think we are going to see some killer applications that take advantage of this low latency with 5G,” said Will Townsend, senior analyst with industry research firm Moor Insights & Strategy. “We couldn’t get to the ride sharing disruption of the taxi industry until we had 4G. Look at how that changed our lives. We are going to see the same thing happen with 5G.”

How does it work?

In some ways, 5G is similar to 4G. It uses the same Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex (OFDM) air interface encoding system to cram as many data packets as possible onto each megahertz of airwave spectrum.

One thing that’s new, however, is 5G has been tailored to take advantage of millimeter wave spectrum – high-frequency bands above 24 gigahertz that have never been used for cellular communications.

Millimeter wave frequencies serve up vast swaths of uncrowded airwaves to deliver uber-fast speeds and massive data capacity. With millimeter wave, cellular operators aren’t just adding a few extra lanes to the existing cellular data highway. They’re opening up big new freeways.

But millimeter wave bands have drawbacks. Signals don’t travel very far. They don’t penetrate buildings and can be blocked by foliage and even rain. They require complex beam forming, beam tracking and beam switching technologies to work.

San Diego-based Qualcomm and others believe they have cracked the code for getting millimeter waves to function for smartphones, particularly in dense cities.

In San Francisco, for example, Qualcomm says 70% of mobile outdoor data traffic could be handled by millimeter wave without installing any additional cell towers.

Off-loading that traffic improves performance on the rest of the network, including on non-millimeter wave, mid-band frequencies earmarked for 5G – those between 1 gigahertz and 6 gigahertz.

These mid-band frequencies, which already are used for wireless, penetrate buildings and travel farther than millimeter wave. But they don’t deliver the speeds or wide open capacity available with millimeter wave.

President of Qualcomm Cristiano Amon at the Qualcomm in San Diego, Calif. (Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
President of Qualcomm Cristiano Amon at the Qualcomm in San Diego, Calif. (Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

5G also lowers the cost for network operators of delivering mobile bandwidth, said Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm.

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“It is a network structure that allows operators to see a step-function decline in the cost per bit,” he said. “When you look at the consumption of data, the gigabits per month continues to climb. We are already at an inflection point where it is uneconomical to do (unlimited plans) with 4G.”

Qualcomm estimates that with 5G, network operators can achieve a 30-fold reduction in their cost per gigabit by 2025. Much of this cost benefit stems from tapping into millimeter wave spectrum, though 5G does boost data traffic flow in mid-band frequencies as well.

Finally, 5G delivers flexibility, reliability and consistency. The network can be sliced to carve out dedicated lanes for specific services – such as a guaranteed Internet connection for mission critical applications or 5 milliseconds latency for mobile gaming.

“4G is very good, but the system has been designed for what we call best-effort Internet. Sometimes you lose the connection,” Amon said. “What 5G does is enable you to serve mission-critical applications for the first time in the history of cellular.”

Guaranteed connectivity opens the door for mobile operators to serve new industries.

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“That is really critical for businesses in particular,” said Welsh de Grimaldo of Strategy Analytics. “If you are putting a business’s critical functions on wireless connectivity, you have to make sure it works all the time.”

Up and running

About 20 operators worldwide are expected to light up 5G networks this year or next, although coverage won’t be everywhere at first.

Smartphone and mobile hotspot makers are lining up to support 5G. Samsung, LG, Motorola and others already have devices on the market.

Qualcomm has signed deals to supply 5G chips to 150 devices, which is double the backlog of just three months before.

In the U.S., Verizon has 5G up and running in parts of Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver and Providence, R.I., with another 30 cities in the pipeline, including San Diego. Verizon expects three-quarters of the phones that launch on its network next year will be 5G.

AT&T has 5G wave in parts of 21 cities, with an initial focus on business customers rather than consumers. It plans to add nine additional cities by year end, including San Diego. The company is on track for nationwide 5G coverage in mid-2020.

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The Sprint/T-Mobile merger is expected to accelerate the combined company’s 5G rollouts, though both have limited 5G deployments in about a half-dozen cities each today.

Globally, 5G networks are operating in South Korea, Australia and a few countries in Europe. Japan is expected to launch 5G early next year. In China, the three state-supported mobile operators plan to install 100,000 5G base stations by the end of this year.

The race to 5G

Because 5G has the potential to connect infrastructure and transform industries, it has emerged as a bit of an arms race among nations, particularly the U.S. and China.

The technology has been at the center of the Trump administration’s national security concerns over the growth of Chinese-made equipment in telecommunications networks globally, which it believes could be used for cyber espionage.

China was mostly on the sidelines during the 3G and 4G cellular standard setting process, where Qualcomm, Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung were among the major players contributing technologies used in networks globally.

But Chinese companies have been much more active in standard setting for 5G.

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Huawei – the Chinese multinational technology company that makes telecommunications equipment – has declared more patent families as relevant to the 5G standard than anyone else, according to intellectual property research firm iPlytics.

In an internal memo seen by Bloomberg News, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei said the Chinese company’s dominance in 5G has been cited as motivation for a U.S. campaign to contain its growth.

“The U.S. doesn’t use the most advanced 5G technology,” wrote Zhengfei in the memo quoted by Bloomberg. “That may leave it lagging behind in the artificial intelligence sector.”

But Qualcomm and Samsung were the first companies to deliver 5G silicon to devices on the market today. Qualcomm’s chips support both millimeter wave and mid-band 5G frequencies.

Huawei’s self-make 5G silicon is 50% larger than Qualcomm’s first generation 5G chip, according to industry research firm IHS Market. Huawei 5G chips don’t support millimeter wave.

Not all contributions to standard-setting organizations are created equal, according to analysts. Qualcomm has been working on 5G for nearly a decade. The company says it has developed many foundational technologies that are part of the 5G standard.

“5G is the (cellular) transition that everyone should pay attention to,” said Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf. “Qualcomm’s focus on 5G has not only provided others with the 5G foundation to build on top of and capitalize on, but we have put ourselves in a strong position.”