Why 5G for smartphones is just the start

Crazy-fast phone speeds are great, but 5G could radically change the way you drive, shop or visit the doctor. We break down how 5G might impact your life.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
11 min read

5G is here -- and soon it will move beyond the phone.

Angela Lang/CNET

Take a five-minute walk behind Qualcomm's main office in San Diego and you'll find an unlikely kind of lab. The cavernous room, previously used for storing office furniture and boxes, has become the mobile chip giant's testing ground for new wireless technologies, where it's working on  5G in ways you may not be expecting. While 5G means super-high speeds on our smartphones , that's really just the beginning.

Immediately inside the door is a tall 5G antenna, beaming its signal across the room. Nets flank the side of the test area so people don't accidentally step onto the blue foam padding lining the floor. Deeper into the room are two cars embedded with modems and cameras that can detect if pedestrians are in the way and quickly alert a driver. 

And in a far corner, hidden behind big wooden crates and metal carts piled high with boxes, Qualcomm has set up tests for automated robots in factories. Antennas mounted on the wall send 5G signals to the "factory floor" using the building's private cellular 5G network. In a demo Qualcomm shows me on video, a forklift drives back and forth, blocking one beam. But signals from other antennas seamlessly cover the connection without missing a beat.

Yep, it's a mock warehouse within a real warehouse. 

"We moved the lab into as realistic an environment as possible," Patrik Lundqvist, Qualcomm director of technical marketing, said as he walks me through a demo. 

Watch this: 5G means more than just fast downloads to your phone

Robots and cars represent just a couple examples of the kinds of machines and devices that could benefit from the rise of 5G, shaking up how we live and work. The heavily hyped technology runs between 10 and 100 times faster than today's typical 4G cellular connection, and it's much more responsive than 4G and Wi-Fi. 5G provides more capacity on the network, letting a lot more devices be connected at the same time. And it's more reliable than other wireless connections.

Well, once those 5G networks get built out. Early tests have shown spotty and inconsistent 5G coverage

The initial hype around 5G seems to be all about mobile. The super-fast wireless network will let us download gigabits of data in seconds and stream live video in ultra-high definition. We'll be able to do things that we could never do before on a mobile device -- and do them nearly instantaneously. And just as 4G brought services like Uber ride-hailing and Facebook livestreaming, 5G will bring a wealth of services we haven't even imagined yet.

But 5G has the ability to transform more than just phones, as I saw in Qualcomm's warehouse lab. It has huge implications for robots, cars, health devices, retail and nearly every industry you can think of. 5G can link street lights and other devices that haven't been connected to the internet before, with ubiquitous sensors constantly talking to each other. Emergency responders will be able to do more on the scene of an accident, while farmers will be able to monitor their crops and livestock. Even cows could become connected. 

Some of these things can be done with 4G today. But where 5G really matters is those mission-critical moments when the network has to respond much faster -- and carry a lot more data. A robot doing surgery or building a car can't be disconnected from physical cables and linked to a wireless network unless the signal is super-fast, stable and responsive. And while you can connect a smart energy meter today using older wireless technology, you can't link the entire grid and instruct it to fix itself by rerouting the power if a tree falls on a wire somewhere along the line. With 5G, you can.

"New things become possible when you can move information at a massive scale," said Gordon Smith, CEO of telecom equipment reseller Sagent. "[5G] becomes the great enabler."

What 5G can do for you besides fast phone downloads

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More immersive video, games, AR

We'll download things faster and stream a lot more, whether it's on our phones or 5G-connected computers. Video will be crisper and more immersive on phones, virtual reality headsets and other devices, and sports stadiums can use 5G to give us different viewing angles in real time.

The gaming industry's push for more streaming services will benefit greatly from 5G. Google's Stadia and Microsoft's Project xCloud are a couple of new cloud gaming services that rely on a fast and responsive network. Gaming over a 4G connection today typically isn't a great experience because the connection can lag too much. 

"What cloud gaming requires is very high data rates, solid connectivity to the cloud and low latency to the games," said Finnbar Moynihan, vice president of corporate sales and business development in the Americas and Europe for mobile chip maker MediaTek. "That all speaks to what 5G is going to enable." 

Microsoft's Xbox division has been conducting trials with operators on 5G bandwidth and latency, said Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox. And it's one of the reasons the company's Project xCloud will come first to Android phones

"There's a real opportunity in 5G," Spencer said. 

Then there's augmented reality and virtual reality. Right now, AR and VR require bulky headsets, with the technology either embedded in the device or linked to a computer via a hardwire connection to help with latency. With 5G, the headsets can get much lighter, with the connection able to instantaneously stream content from the cloud. 

You could, for instance, put on AR glasses to get instructions for changing a car's tire. The directions would be in front of you and quickly adapt to whatever you're doing. 

Remote surgeries

In a panel held at the MWC trade show in Barcelona in March, I watched doctors and nurses huddled around a patient in what was billed as the first live surgery involving a doctor assisting from another location. A doctor in the conference center gave real-time instructions, including live drawings on a video of the patient, to the doctors in the operating room. 

The bridge that allowed for the remote, real-time consultation? 5G, of course.

Just imagine how much remote, live expertise could change healthcare in far-off locations like parts of Africa, where there may not even be a trained doctor. 

Health care in the home

Remote surgeries aren't happening tomorrow, but there's another aspect of 5G that could be a reality much sooner: virtual home health care. 

The population is rapidly aging, but many older people today are increasingly tech-savvy. They also want to stay in their homes instead of moving to assisted living facilities or hospitals. For many people, their relatives become caregivers, but it's difficult to be home all of the time. Then there are people with long-term conditions who may need extra monitoring to remain at home instead of the hospital. 


Dr. Antonio de Lacy, head of the gastrointestinal surgery service at Hospital Clinic of Barcelona, guides a team conducting real surgery from MWC 2019. The yellow line on the screen in the operating room was made by de Lacy from across town. 

Shara Tibken/CNET

5G is critical if you're using a portable ultrasound or stroke detection machine in someone's home. Anything with sophisticated imaging and the ability to send real-time data to doctors could benefit from a network's high bandwidth and responsiveness. And then there's all the data that could be collected from sensors all over your body and home. 

"5G can take it to a whole new level," said Hayley Tabor, vice president of global industries, sales and solutions at Dell . She oversees the teams working with customers to come up with 5G uses in industries like health care, energy, retail and surveillance.

With health emergencies like strokes and cardiac arrest, faster treatment can make a huge difference. There are machines that use visual imaging -- high-definition streams of eyes and face -- combined with advanced artificial intelligence to detect a stroke, said Dell Technology Chief John Roese. But those machines are too complex and expensive to put in every ambulance, he said. 

5G could let a less advanced machine run in the ambulance but gain the analysis it needs by connecting to central system at the hospital or in the cloud. 

"The diagnostic tools that you could potentially use on a patient before they get to the hospital are enormous," Roese said. "If you can suddenly connect the ambulance in an intelligent way … you can have the network and everything behave properly to invoke [the tools] at the right time."

Emergency response

The ability to gather data in real time could be a game changer for first responders like firefighters combatting wildfires in California. Drones could shoot video of the fire from above and stream the images back in real time. That information could be combined with climate, terrain and mapping information to help predict where the fire will go next, and it can be shared instantly with different agencies. 

Augmented reality headgear worn by firefighters could superimpose the schematics of a burning building in their frame of vision so they understand where pipes and rooms are. 

"That kind of real-time event at scale requires a whole lot of insight and expertise to maximize the response to it," said Steve Canepa, IBM 's head of 5G, telco, media and entertainment.

The body cameras that police officers wear could do more than record grainy video of traffic stops. Instead, the video could be constantly streamed in real time, letting someone in a remote location monitor the happenings and dispatch help immediately. 

Connected cars

With the connected car of yesterday, you could access OnStar for emergency assistance, stream music and update your maps with the most current traffic data. But the 5G-connected car of tomorrow will do so much more. 

"Real-time navigation and safety … with the ability to connect to infrastructure, other cars and pedestrians … was not possible before 5G," Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said. 

5G could help with car diagnostics and even faster mapping updates, as well as overhaul the car's infotainment system. You'll be able to watch live TV on the screens in your seats or stream games and other content as you drive to your destination. 

Self-propelled car from Google sister company Waymo

5G can help enable some features on self-driving cars -- but not mission-critical tasks anytime soon, if ever.


Your car may one day know the correct speed to hit every green light because the traffic light system shared its schedule. Or it would know to hang back a bit before making a left because another vehicle was coming over a blind hill. 

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication "expands your field of view significantly," said Durga Malladi, Qualcomm's head of 5G. 

Self-driving cars

Further down the road are autonomous vehicles. 5G coverage could take years to be widespread enough for self-driving cars to use the technology for much beyond infotainment systems. 

"Autonomous vehicles are not going to be a factor for 5G in the next few years, if ever," said Dan Hays, the US head of technology, media and telecommunications corporate strategy at professional services firm PwC. While 5G technology can be used for in-car entertainment or other noncritical systems, he said, "for the most part, autonomy is not happening over cellular networks anytime soon."

But 5G can be "an enabler" and "accelerator" for autonomous cars when it comes to communication, latency and bandwidth, according to Dmitri Dolgov, chief technology officer at Google's Waymo self-driving car business. Vehicles "still have to rely on onboard computation for anything that is safety-critical," he said in a meeting with VentureBeat.

Fixed wireless/home broadband

For most home internet connections today, a cable company installs a wire all the way to our homes, we hook up a router and send the signal to our various devices. But 5G could boost something called fixed wireless. 


Qualcomm has turned a former storage warehouse in a testbed for 5G connectivity. 

Shara Tibken/CNET

The way fixed wireless works is that a cellular company beams a signal to an antenna on or near the roof of a building. The connection travels down a cable into the home and then connects to a router, which broadcasts Wi-Fi to nearby devices. The benefit is that the service is typically faster and easier to install than a traditional hard-wired internet link, and you also get the benefits of 5G's lower latency. 

Verizon , for one, turned on its 5G fixed wireless service before it launched its mobile offering. And more carriers could follow. 

"One of the first things that 5G can really help with is ability to enable connectivity in a much more agile way," said Jonathan Davidson, senior vice president of Cisco 's service provider business.

Public sector

Governments around the globe are figuring out ways to use 5G, including in the military and local municipalities.

Dell is working with a customer in the Midwest that wants to use 5G on snow and ice removal trucks. The bandwidth would let the agency track the various trucks' positions and routes. On-vehicle computers would use sensors to track the salt distribution mix and communicate with the central weather database to determine if the amount of salt applied makes sense for the conditions. 


Retailers also are looking at how to use 5G in their stores. They want to increase the bandwidth of their store connectivity to push more in-store promotions and tailor experiences for their customers in real time. You could take a selfie and instantly see what you look like in the outfit in front of you. Inventory tracking with 5G could lead to more accurate data, ensuring they have the right inventory at all times. 

But for 5G to be widely used in retail, networks have to first be set up. 

"We have to wait for … all stores in a region to have 5G accessibility, before retailers will consider switching to 5G in those regions," said Carl Rodrigues, CEO of mobile and IOT device management company SOTI. "This entire transition will likely take five years to be fully in place."

Factory robots without strings

Then, of course, there are those factories. Robots today are heavily used in manufacturing, but they require wired connections. The accuracy needed is so high, there can't be any sort of hiccups in the signal. Wi-Fi won't cut it, and neither will 4G.

But with 5G, wireless can have the same low latency and high reliability as a wireline connection, Qualcomm's Malladi said. 5G networks are designed to respond in less than a millisecond, compared with several milliseconds for 4G and Wi-Fi -- or more, depending on the use and the network. And going wireless comes with the benefit of being able to quickly move equipment around without having to disconnect and reconnect the machine's wires. 

"This is going to transform manufacturing," Malladi said. 


Qualcomm is testing 5G in cars, factories and other areas in its warehouse lab.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Factories with 5G will likely rely on private networks. The ultra-high-speed millimeter wave 5G signals have trouble going through walls, and they can get blocked by equipment and other items. Companies will set up their own 5G networks to make sure they have the ultra low latency and steady connections they require. Like that Qualcomm demo, they'll have multiple 5G base stations around the factory floors to make sure a signal is never dropped.

Bosch, the giant German electronics company, is testing 5G in its own factories. It believes autonomous vehicles will deliver components to workspaces, robots will help workers manufacture products and devices will be inspected for quality with the help of artificial intelligence.

A Bosch plant in Worcester, England, has become the first in Britain to have 5G wireless access. 5G-connected sensors give the company real-time feedback and predict possible machine failure using data analytics. 

"5G will be the central nervous system in the factory of the future," Andreas Müller, a Bosch researcher, said in a press release. 

Other industries, too, will set up private 5G networks to benefit from the high speeds and low latency. Hospitals, container ports, oil refineries, mines and even office buildings could roll out their own connections, as they do with Wi-Fi networks today. 

So what's going to be the killer app for 5G? There may not be just one, but instead could be many uses that tap into 5G's high speeds, responsiveness and capacity. 

"The promise … of 5G going beyond phones is really materializing right now," Qualcomm's Amon said.

CNET's Ian Sherr contributed to this report.