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The 5G revolution is coming. Here's everything you need to know

Separating hype from the reality of the next generation of wireless technology.

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5G is going to change our lives... eventually. 

James Martin/CNET

The next generation of wireless technology, fittingly known as 5G, is just around the corner. And it promises to change our lives forever.

At least, that's what the wireless industry is saying. It really wants 5G to be a thing. 

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Ever since Verizon said it'd be the first major telecom company to deploy 5G field tests three years ago, the hype for the technology has been building. It's been referred to as a foundational tech that will supercharge areas like self-driving cars, virtual and augmented reality, and telemedicine like remote surgery

But what exactly is 5G? Why are people so excited? The following is a breakdown of why the next generation of wireless technology is more than just a boost in speed, and why you should be excited yourself. 

What is 5G?

It's the next (fifth) generation of cellular technology which promises to greatly enhance the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. How fast are we talking about? Think 10 to 100 times speedier than your typical cellular connection, and even faster than anything you can get with a physical fiber-optic cable going into your house. (You'll be able to download a season's worth of "Stranger Things" in seconds.)

Is it just about speed?

No! One of the key benefits is something called low latency. You'll hear this word mentioned A LOT. Latency is the response time between when you click on a link or start streaming a video on your phone, sending the request up to the network, and when the network responds and gives you your website or starts playing your video.

That lag time can last around 20 milliseconds with current networks. It doesn't seem like much, but with 5G, that latency gets reduced to as little as 1 millisecond, or about the time it takes for a flash in a normal camera to finish

That responsiveness is critical for things like playing an intense video game in virtual reality or for a surgeon in New York to control a pair of robotic arms performing a procedure in San Francisco, though latency will still be affected by the ultimate range of the connection.

How does it work?

5G initially used super high-frequency spectrum, which has shorter range but higher capacity, to deliver a massive pipe for online access. But given the range and interference issues, the carriers are starting to explore lower frequency spectrum -- the type used in today's networks, to help ferry 5G across greater distances and through walls and other obstructions. 

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Motorola's 5G Mod, in prototype form

Juan Garzon/CNET

Are there other benefits?

Yes! The 5G network is designed to connect a far greater number of devices than a traditional cellular network. That internet of things trend you keep hearing about? 5G can power multiple devices around you, whether it's a dog collar or a refrigerator. 

The 5G network was also specifically built to handle equipment used by businesses, such as farm equipment or ATMs. Beyond speed, it's also designed to work differently on connected products that don't need a constant connection, like a sensor for fertilizer. Those kinds of low-power scanners are designed to work on the same battery for 10 years and still be able to periodically send over data. 

Sounds great, but when does 5G get here?

Verizon will launch the first "5G" service in the world in October, but it's a bit of a technicality. 

The service isn't mobile service, but a fixed broadband replacement. An installer will need to put in special equipment that can pick up the 5G signals and turn it into a Wi-Fi connection in the home so your other devices can access it. 

There's also some debate about whether the service even qualifies for 5G because it doesn't use the standards that the industry has agreed upon. The company wanted to jump out ahead, and used its own proprietary technology. Verizon argues that the speeds, which range from 300 megabits per second to 1 gigabit per second, qualify the service for 5G designation. Its rivals and even experts from chipmaker Qualcomm dispute the claim. 

The launch is extremely limited in select neighborhoods in Los Angeles; Sacramento, California; Indianapolis; and Dallas. (Let us know if you're one of the lucky few who get it.)

OK, but what about mobile 5G?

Verizon says it'll launch its mobile 5G next year. AT&T is looking like the first company to launch a true mobile 5G service. It plans to launch 5G this year in 12 markets.  

Like the Verizon deployment, expect the rollout of 5G in these cities to be extremely limited. 

Also, there won't be any 5G phones available yet, so you'll initially get hockey puck-like wireless hotspot devices that can tap into those networks. 

No 5G phones? Can't I just pick up 5G with my existing smartphone?

Sorry, no. 5G technology requires a specific set of antennas that aren't available yet. Sprint says it plans to release the first US 5G smartphone next year, which will be built by LG. 

5G smartphones are expected to come out in the first half of next year. 

Anything I should worry about?

High-frequency spectrum is the key to that massive pickup in capacity and speed, but there are drawbacks. The range isn't great, especially when you have obstructions like trees or buildings. As a result, carriers will have to deploy a lot more small cellular radios, creatively named small cells, around any areas that get a 5G signal. 

That's going to annoy anyone who doesn't want cellular radios near them. With concerns over unknown health risks, as well as the fact that they may end up looking like neighborhood eyesores, there may be some objections to these things. 

How broadly will 5G be available next year?

Here's the other concern -- 5G might still be a theoretical possibility for a lot of people. 

T-Mobile says it's launching in 30 cities next year, while Sprint will launch in six cities. AT&T is launching in a dozen markets, and Verizon aims to launch next year too, but it's unclear how wide the coverage will be.  

So don't feel like you need to rush out to buy that first 5G smartphone. Chances are, service won't be widely available until 2020 or beyond. 

Our 5G glossary

Do you want to show off your 5G knowledge to your friends? Or seem like the smartest person at a party? Check out our 5G glossary below. 

5G NR 

The 5G bit is pretty obvious, but the NR stands for New Radio. You don't have to know a lot about this beyond the fact that it's the name of the standard that the entire wireless industry is rallying behind, and it just came out in December.

That's important because it means everyone is on the same page when it comes to their mobile 5G networks. Carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile are following 5G NR as they build their networks. But Verizon, which began testing 5G as a broadband replacement service before the standard was approved, isn't using the standard -- yet. The company says it'll eventually adopt 5G NR for its broadband service, and intends to use NR for its 5G mobile network.

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Millimeter wave

All cellular networks use airwaves to ferry data over the air, with standard networks using spectrum in lower frequency bands like 700 megahertz. Generally, the higher the band or frequency, the higher the speed you can achieve. The consequence of higher frequency, however, is shorter range.

To achieve those crazy-high 5G speeds, you need really, really high frequency spectrum. The millimeter wave range falls between 24 gigahertz and 100 gigahertz.

The problem with super-high frequency spectrum, besides the short range, is it's pretty finicky -- a leaf blows the wrong way and you get interference. Forget about obstacles like walls. Companies like Verizon are working on using software and broadcasting tricks to get around these problems and ensure stable connections.

Small cell

Traditional cellular coverage typically stems from gigantic towers littered with different radios and antennas. Those antennas are able to broadcast signals at a great distance, so you don't need a lot of them. Small cells are the opposite --  backpack-size radios can be hung up on street lamps, poles rooftops or other areas. They can only broadcast a 5G signal at a short range, so the idea is to have a large number of them in a densely packed network. 

Some cities have this kind of dense network in place, but if you go outside of the metro area, that's where small cells become more of a challenge. 

Sub-6GHz

Given how troublesome really high-band spectrum can be (see the "Millimeter wave" section), there's a movement to embrace spectrum at a much lower frequency, or anything lower than 6GHz. The additional benefit is that carriers can use spectrum they already own to get going on 5G networks. T-Mobile, for instance, has a swath of 600MHz spectrum it plans to use to power its 5G deployment. Prior to sub-6GHz, that would've been impossible.

That's why you're seeing more carriers embrace lower frequency spectrum.

But lower frequency spectrum has the opposite problem: While it reaches great distance, it doesn't have the same speed and capacity as millimeter wave spectrum.

The ideal down the line will be for carriers to use a blend of the two.

Gigabit LTE

You're hearing more about Gigabit LTE as a precursor to 5G. Ultimately it's about much higher speeds on the existing LTE network. But the work going toward building a Gigabit LTE network provides the foundation for 5G.

For more on Gigabit LTE, read our explainer here.

MIMO

An acronym for multiple input, multiple output. Basically, it's the idea of shoving more antennas into our phones and on cellular towers. And you can always have more antennas. They feed into the faster Gigabit LTE network, and companies are deploying what's known as 4x4 MIMO, in which four antennas are installed in a phone.

Carrier aggregation 

Wireless carriers can take different bands of radio frequencies and bind them together so phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 can pick and choose the speediest and least congested one available. Think of it as a three-lane highway so cars can weave in and out depending on which lane has less traffic.

QAM 

This is a term that's so highly technical, I don't even bother to explain the nuance. It stands for quadrature amplitude modulation. See? Don't even worry about it.

What you need to know is that it allows traffic to move quickly in a different way than carrier aggregation or MIMO. Remember that highway analogy? Well, with 256 QAM, you'll have big tractor trailers carrying data instead of tiny cars. MIMO, carrier aggregation and QAM are already going into 4G networks, but play an important role in 5G too.

Beam forming 

This is a way to direct 5G signals in a specific direction, potentially giving you your own specific connection. Verizon has been using beam forming for millimeter wave spectrum, getting around obstructions like walls or trees.

Unlicensed spectrum 

Cellular networks all rely on what's known as licensed spectrum, which they own and purchased from the government.

But the move to 5G comes with the recognition that there just isn't enough spectrum when it comes to maintaining wide coverage. So the carriers are moving to unlicensed spectrum, similar to the kind of free airwaves that our Wi-Fi networks ride on.

Network slicing

This is the ability to carve out individual slivers of spectrum to offer specific devices the kind of connection they need. For instance, the same cellular tower can offer a lower-power, slower connection to a sensor for a connected water meter in your home, while at the same time offering a faster, lower-latency connection to a self-driving car that's navigating in real time.

Are you hearing more 5G-related words that confuse you? Contact us and we'll update this story with additional terms.

First published, Feb. 8,  5 a.m PT. 
Update, Sept. 27, 5 a.m. PT: To include additional details and background about 5G. Update, Oct. 17, 6 a.m. PT: To include additional details and background. 

5G: Your Next Big Upgrade: CNET's series on the next generation of cellular technology.

Not just speed: Check out 7 incredible things you can do with 5G.