5G is coming. Eventually.
The fifth generation of wireless technology heralds a significant speed boost for Internet connections. On a 5G network, you could download the latest "Star Wars" film in seconds, not the minutes needed on today's networks. Its expected ubiquity will also help connect millions of devices, from lightbulbs to farm gear, allowing them to talk to one another and to you.
Now AT&T has publicly come out with its road map for 5G, which will deliver 10 to 100 times the speed of today's 4G wireless connections. This follows Verizon's vow to start field tests this year.
AT&T, the nation's second-largest wireless carrier, said late Thursday that it plans to start development work on 5G technology with partners Ericsson and Intel in the second quarter. Field trials are expected to start in Austin, Texas, by year's end.
The companies' plans mark the next step on the long journey to 5G. Although AT&T and Verizon are moving on tests now, the industry doesn't expect the technology to be widely available until 2020. With early work going into 5G now, though, the hype is building.
The rollout of 5G will enable all kinds of new opportunities. A more responsive network could let a doctor remotely perform delicate surgery with robotic hands, according to carriers and equipment makers. The increased capacity would also let you stream virtual-reality videos or games directly to your VR headset or send multiple streams of super-high-definition video to all the big-screen televisions in your house.
"New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before," John Donovan, chief strategy officer of AT&T, said in a statement. "5G will help make them a reality."
It could even be fast and cheap enough to let you ditch your current broadband service. AT&T plans to offer a home Internet service powered by 5G wireless tech to a limited number of customers by the end of the year, according to a spokesman.
"What 5G will mean is that fixed wireless will become a realistic alternative or replacement for fixed Internet service, especially in rural America," said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics.
Currently, your phone's speed is measured in megabits per second. With 5G, it will be measured in gigabits per second.
Beyond speed, 5G networks are also designed to be more power-efficient, allowing a connected sensor on a farm to run for 10 years on a single battery.
AT&T notes that by relying more on software, it can move more quickly than the typical upgrade process of adding new equipment. The company said it has worked on many of the key ingredients of 5G technology in its labs for years.
The company plans to use the data gleaned from the Austin trials to help guide a more widespread rollout down the line.