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Think 5G wireless is speeding to your phone? Hold your horses

5G will deliver real benefits and expand what mobile networks can do, but you'll have to be very, very patient. And today's hype could even mar 5G's arrival.

Nokia​ demonstrates how 5G networks are fast enough to coordinate toy cars whizzing through an intersection without colliding.
At Mobile World Congress 2016, Nokia demonstrated how 5G network technology responds fast enough to coordinate toy cars and let them whiz through an intersection without colliding.
Stephen T. Shankland/CNET

Next-generation wireless networks could well make your phone dramatically more powerful and transform everything from driving to entertainment. But to hear the industry players right now, you'd think the 5G revolution is just around the corner.

It's not.

Today's technology industry has a remarkable success rate developing new products and services that profoundly transform our lives. You'd be well advised to make peace with your current network service, though, because the 5G revolution is years and years in the future.

The 5G hype reached a fever pitch at the Mobile World Congress tech show here in Barcelona. You can hear promises of 5G-powered drones, watch 5G toy cars race around, see demonstrations of 5G gory details like beamforming and millimeter-wave radio (don't ask), and use virtual-reality headsets to create virtual art with another person linked over 5G. AT&T and Verizon, the two largest US carriers, tried to outdo each other with 5G news.

The idea is to get us all salivating at 5G's prospects, which include a hundredfold speed increase that would let us download full-length movies in seconds, or networks responsive enough to beam augmented-reality graphics onto your car windshield.

Haste makes waste

There are downsides to tech companies trying to build excitement for next-generation technology. First, customers might be disappointed to find they've got to wait years to join the party. The proper 5G standard is due to be finished in 2018, with the first real networks arriving in 2020. The profoundly new services will come only with widespread installation over the years to follow.

We can learn from history. "Videoconferencing in 2003 was the killer app for 3G," said Forrester analyst Thomas Husson, referring to third-generation network technology that's now old-school. "We're starting to see video all over the place, but it's 12 years later."

A second downside: Releasing 5G before it's fully finished could undermine the technology's usefulness and increase how much you'll have to pay to get it. That's because all makers of chips, network equipment and phones will have to create technology for different, incompatible versions, said Matt Grob, chief technology officer of mobile-chip maker Qualcomm. Lots of small markets means products are more expensive -- and that expense could be passed on to your monthly phone bill.

"A couple operators are taking the role of catalyst, and we support that," Grob said. "But on the flip side, more [5G] versions means more cost."

Another problem with building networks that use prestandard versions of 5G is that your phone might not work up to 5G's potential if you switch to a new carrier or roam on other networks when traveling.

5G's first real-world steps

The first 5G likely won't even show up in a mobile phone. AT&T plans to use 5G technology in Austin, Texas, to connect homes with high-speed wireless broadband links this year. Verizon, which also is working on the more technically difficult problem of 5G networks for devices that aren't standing still, plans to bring 5G to market in 2017, though it's not being specific about how.

The first 5G technology use in mobile phones will come around 2018 at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, where carrier KT has big ambitions to maintain its position as the earliest adopter of new network technology.

It's also a chance for Korean business partner Samsung to shine by supplying phones. "We're going to be a part of that," said Woojune Kim, head of Samsung's business unit for next-generation technology.

Nokia plans to launch "prestandard 5G products" in 2017 for home broadband trials, but the full commercial launch is set for 2020, two years after the standard is final, said Volker Held, head of innovation marketing at network-equipment maker Nokia.

Early use of incompatible 5G technology worries Intel. "I'm very concerned about that," said Aicha Evans, general manager of Intel's Communication and Devices Group. But 5G industry alliances are sprouting like weeds, and she's optimistic those partnerships will nip problems in the bud.

AT&T is aware of the risks of high expectations. "What we don't want to do is overhype and underdeliver," said Glenn Lurie, chief executive of AT&T's consumer mobility business.


Not everyone is so cautious. Network-gear maker Ericsson thinks the 5G hype is good.

It's created a sense of urgency and wiped out complacency, said Chief Technology Officer Ulf Ewaldsson. "It's the biggest opportunity in a long time to make networks relevant."