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CES 2018 is where you'll start caring about 5G

This year, the world's biggest consumer electronics show will shine a light on the next-gen wireless technology that will shape the coming decade.

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Kelly Nelson/CNET

At this year's CES you'll hear plenty of talk about driverless cars, connected homes and the internet of things. (Yes, we promise IoT, perhaps the buzziest of tech trends, is more than just hackable baby monitors and $400 internet-connected juicers.)

Here's the technology that will drive all of those innovations over the next decade: 5G.

The shorthand tag "5G" stands for fifth-generation wireless technology. Those broadbandlike wireless speeds you're getting on your phone now? That's 4G technology. So just think about what happens next.

If you're excited about the prospects, you aren't alone. Tech observers see 5G as the foundation for a host of other trends. At last year's CES, Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf described 5G as the biggest thing since the introduction of electricity

Remember, a lot of work needs to be done for 5G to achieve broad scale. But with networks set to go live by 2019 and coverage reaching 20 percent of the population by 2023, now's the time to start caring about it.

The lowdown on 5G

The brave new world of 5G isn't just about speed. Sure, you can look forward to ridiculously high download speeds and bufferless 4K streaming. The real advantages, however, come down to three other things:

  1. Reliability: 5G doesn't just deliver peak speeds in ideal conditions. The technology offers superhigh speeds that are reliable and consistent, even indoors or in congested areas.
  2. Bandwidth: 5G can support a massive increase in connected devices. Ericsson forecasts 1 billion 5G subscriptions by 2023. Think sensors on everything.
  3. Latency: Phones today have an annoying lag between when you send a request for a website or video and when the network responds. With 5G, that'll be reduced to 1 millisecond. That's 400 times faster than the blink of an eye. It's so fast, some companies see it opening up the possibility of remote surgery.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich is devoting his preshow keynote presentation to the data-driven future that 5G enables. Nokia and Ericsson will be on stage touting the new network technology. Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which runs CES, has already been hitting the media circuit to talk up the tech.

Smart home

According to Intel, the future of 5G means everything will be connected.

The company, known for processors, is positioning itself at the forefront of the 5G revolution. Leading the charge is Asha Keddy, who heads up Intel's efforts on IoT, connected devices and next generation networks.

"We're not just going to be connecting 6 or 7 billion people, we'll be connecting tens of billions of things," said Keddy. "It will be phones, lights, cars, buildings, appliances, you name it."

That connectivity starts in the home.

CES has given us a taste of the connected home for years. App-controlled door locks, smart cameras and even internet-connected fridges are now mainstays of the Las Vegas Convention Center halls. As 5G becomes a reality, experts say the number and types of connected devices will explode. Gartner predicts 20.4 billion connected "things" will be online by 2020.

So, think smart lights that communicate with the electricity grid, connected showers that monitor water use, and connected cameras and sensors scattered through your home. Telehealth will also be big, with devices that monitor your body and send data to your doctor.

You might even hear about the occasional connected juicer now and again.

Smart cities and IoT

The proliferation of connected devices won't end in the home. In 2018, an entire patch of CES will be dedicated to smart cities, covering smart energy grids, infrastructure like roads and transport, and connected health care.

Big names like Intel, Qualcomm and Ericsson will showcase the applications we can expect from 5G in our cities over the next decades. Imagine sensors on every building, communicating electricity usage back to the grid; connected surveillance cameras and body cams matching faces to biometric databases in real time; and smart traffic lights sending traffic data to city planning officials.

That innovation isn't expected to stop at the city limits. Specialists also see 5G revolutionizing the world of agriculture. Farms of the future are expected to use connected rainwater sensors that speak to smart sprinkler systems, while sensors measure soil quality and fertilisation. All the data will feed back to a central hub.

Experts say all those sensors will push exabytes of data onto our networks, necessitating 5G technology.

"Today's networks weren't designed to support the capacity, speed and latency requirements of emerging usages," Keddy said. "The core network must evolve."

Driverless cars

A smart city needs smart cars. In recent years, the automotive halls at CES have grown in size, with the likes of Ford, BMW, Hyundai and Audi all showing off intelligent-car concepts.

Mercedes-Benz sees a fully connected, driverless future (and it's very shiny).

Mercedes-Benz sees a fully connected, driverless future (and it's very shiny). 

CNET

These titans of the internal combustion engine are setting their sights on a future in which cars are able to communicate with one another, as well as with traffic signals and road signs. The information the vehicles produce will be fed back into control centers across the city. In the future, you might not even need to look for signposted speed limits; your driverless car could ping a roadside beacon to detect a changing speed limit and adjust the drive accordingly.

The big names of the automotive industry will likely talk up 5G, because they'll rely on its low latency to usher in the driverless future. When your car pings its surroundings to detect other vehicles or a change in traffic conditions, it'll need a response within a fraction of a second. 

VR and entertainment

The millisecond ping time is also central to creating hyperreal virtual and augmented reality experiences. Haptic VR, which lets users touch and feel what they're seeing in their virtual surroundings, relies on 5G's low latency to detect where a user is in the virtual space. It then provides physical feedback in close to real time.

This kind of tech was demoed on the CES show floor in 2017. This year, we can expect to hear more about applications such as remote surgery, machinery control and training.

Of course, VR isn't just about creating realistic simulations through sight and touch. As video consumption increases, 5G will unlock a new wave of entertainment. Imagine streaming multiple 4K video feeds that weave into an immersive VR experience. Maybe there won't be any reason to go to a basketball game or a concert if you can strap on a headset and get a 360-degree view in perfect clarity. You may even get the best seats in the house: the centre of the arena.

The next wave of gadgets will all be connected on a "completely transformed network," says Intel's Keddy. The connectivity will be seamless, invisible and instant. No buffering, no lag, no clogged network.

"Kind of like magic behind the curtain," Keddy said. 

CES 2018: Stay tuned to CNET for all of the big news from the show floor.

Virtual reality 101: CNET tells you everything you need to know about VR.