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Qualcomm says 5G is the biggest thing since electricity

Your next wireless boost is about more than faster movie-streaming. Qualcomm is buzzing about 5G as the key to our future connectivity.

Qualcomm CEO Stephen Mollenkopf shows off the company's new Snapdragon 835 chip, which is small and powerful enough to run the 5G devices of the future.

James Martin/CNET

It's being compared to the arrival of electricity.

That's a big call but Qualcomm has its eyes on a 5G future. And it's not just thinking about speed.

At a CES that has given us intelligent robots, autonomous drones and wallpaper TVs, the next generation of wireless technology might not seem like that big of a deal. But Qualcomm says it will change society in ways we haven't seen since the introduction of electricity.

For anyone who thinks 5G is just an iteration after 3G and 4G, Qualcomm CEO Stephen Mollenkopf spent his keynote outlining why the next generation of mobile connectivity is about so much more than faster 4K Netflix streaming on your phone.

It's about connectivity.

Think of it this way: If 3G ushered in the picture era and 4G was about video, 5G will be about tying our entire world together. What will we get? Live-streaming VR, autonomous cars that respond to real-time conditions, and connected cities where everything from the houses to the street lamps talk to each other.

"5G will be a new kind of network, supporting a vast diversity of devices with unprecedented scale, speed and complexity," Mollenkopf said at the packed keynote. "5G will have an impact similar to the introduction of electricity or the automobile, affecting entire economies and benefiting entire societies."

Those are big words from a maker of small chips, but it was in keeping with the grandiose nature of the whole keynote. The show opened with a video that was almost too hipster; it called computing pioneer Grace Hopper "gangster" and dubbed necessity the "baby mama" of invention.

The connected future, of course, is all about thinking big. And Qualcomm had big ideas in big supply.

As far as Qualcomm sees it, our hyper-connected future will be about three key things: VR, the internet of things and connectivity for mission-critical tasks like autonomous cars and health care.

Next-gen 5G is certainly fast, so yes, you'll be able to download a 4K feature film in 18 seconds. But there's something else about 5G: crazy low latency. Sure, that doesn't sound sexy, but with latency as low as 1 millisecond, real-time VR and autonomous cars can become part of everyday life.

Snapdragon 835 (center) is 35 percent smaller than its predecessor, the 820 (left).

Qualcomm

On the VR front, the company once again showed off its new Snapdragon 835 chip, first unveiled on CES press day. The chip will allow Qualcomm's manufacturing partners to make smaller and lighter devices and offer more processing power.

Real world benefit? Live-streamed VR with far better audio quality and picture resolution. So your next VR concert will sound awesome and your next VR basketball game will be crystal clear. How "gangster" is that?

Next up, IoT. The internet of things might have confused some of us early on, but Qualcomm mapped out a future where every digital device can communicate with each other, without cables and installation manuals. Think of it Alexa-fying your whole world.

Real-world benefit? A smart health wearable that will detect falls, communicate with your ambulance and inform your local doctor of changes in your condition.

Finally, we heard about mission-critical applications, like driverless cars and drone recovery operations.

Qualcomm unveiled its Snapdragon Flight development platform, a chip that weighs less than an AAA battery and gives drones the power to sense and map their surroundings without the need for external computing power. And in the real world? The next emergency responder you see might be flying in the air.

Qualcomm certainly had plenty of big ideas, and we're starting to see some of them on the CES show floor, even if they're just proof of concept. The only thing we need now is the wireless power to get us there.

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