What once seemed like a luxury now looks more like a key upgrade from 4G.
Brian CooleyEditor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
ExpertiseAutomotive technology, smart home, digital health.Credentials
You've probably seen infographics like this that make 5G look like a huge bore. We can do better.
The keys to 5G
The first three attributes in the above graphic are the most important to bear in mind:
Huge bandwidth. 5G will offer a wireless "pipe" large enough to easily transfer any weight of data.
Low latency. The unsung hero of 5G is its ability to respond quickly when asked to transfer data. back and forth.
High density. 4G can't "connect everything" as we intend to do with homes, cars and wearables, not to mention industrial devices.
Yes, 5G will dramatically improve the responsiveness of everything you do on your phone, and it'll deliver internet to your home without a cable or phone line with more speed and responsiveness. Those traits have moved from elective to essential during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. Later, 5G will make possible new experiences that are still fringe, like augmented reality that works well anywhere, a truly connected car and smart cities that are safer, cleaner and more efficient.
Forget about archaic examples like "downloading a full-length movie in seconds" and move your expectations to a world that's more responsive, transparent and anticipatory. That may sound nebulous, but it's 5G's true opportunity.
And WBA Open Roaming is a new variant of Wi-Fi that challenges cellular networks, including 5G: It envisions vast global networks of Wi-Fi hotspots that you log into once and then seamlessly stay connected to as you move or travel, much like a cellular network but with the robust bandwidth we associate with Wi-Fi. It doesn't answer all of 5G's attributes, but does take aim its best understood one: Bandwidth.
5G does emit "microwave" radiation, but so does anything that uses 4G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The point of contention is whether 5G's number of antennas, proximity of antennas and the power levels coming from them make it hazardous. Conventional scientific wisdom has long held that radio waves don't become dangerous to our bodies' cells, or "ionizing," until they reach frequencies found in X-rays, gamma rays and light from the sun. Even the highest 5G frequencies sit far below those types of radiation and are therefore considered safe or "nonionizing."
The bottom line on 5G safety is that the safety of cellular networks in general has been in dispute since at least the early '90s, as well as that of radiation from power lines, which are of extremely low frequency. Anything with the word "radiation" attached to it is going to come in for fearsome speculation.
The long and winding 5G road
What the next five years of 5G adoption will look like remains a point of some dispute. Juniper Research estimates that by 2025 there will be 1.45 billion active 5G connections worldwide, but the question remains how many of those will be connecting homes or IoT devices rather than phones? Juniper says "to be successful, 5G fixed wireless broadband would need to meet expectations in real-world scenarios" as an alternative to other forms of broadband to premises. That may point to an early surge of 5G for IoT users, not necessarily a majority of the world's 3 billion phone users.
Loup Ventures thinks Apple will be an outsized beneficiary of 5G adoption, though at a pace more leisurely than one might expect from a substantially new iPhone. Assuming the first 5G iPhone goes on sale in September 2020, Loup then expects an air pocket for the product immediately after that with "potential disappointment related to soft initial uptake of iPhone 5G, given the lack of carrier coverage in the US and globally." Loup thinks the biggest swell of iPhone 5G adoption won't occur until Apple's fiscal 2023, which ends in September of that year.