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AT&T to do real-life 5G trial with DirecTV Now in Austin

In a testbed for developing other 5G services, the network wants to see how the next-gen wireless tech handles heavy amounts of video traffic.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

AT&T said Wednesday it will test a 5G wireless service to deliver its new DirecTV Now streaming TV service to select homes in Austin, Texas, in the first half of this year.

The Dallas-based wireless and broadband company said the $35-a-month internet streaming service, which offers an alternative to traditional cable and satellite TV services, will use a fixed 5G wireless connection instead of AT&T's 4G mobile network.

The purpose of the trial is to see how AT&T's next-generation wireless network could replace a home broadband connection delivered by a cable company. Specifically, AT&T said it wants to see how it handles heavy amounts of video traffic. As part of the trial, AT&T said it will also test additional "next-generation entertainment services." The company didn't specify what those services will be.

A service like this one could mean the end of the cable guy coming to your house and punching holes in your walls to route a coaxial line into your living room. And in places where there's only one option for home broadband or TV service, it could mean more competition, which will hopefully lead to cheaper services for consumers.

5G is the next or "fifth" generation of wireless technology. It's expected to be up to 100 times faster than current 4G technology. This means downloading all six seasons of "Game of Thrones" in minutes. AT&T says in the labs it's seen download speeds of 14 gigabits per second. AT&T wireless users on its 4G network are lucky to get 14 megabits per second downloads.

5G will also make AT&T's network more responsive by improving latency, or the time it takes the network to respond. This means a quicker response between when you hit the play button and start to see video streaming or when you tap on a web link and start to see it download. AT&T says it's successfully demonstrated latency of less than 3 milliseconds in the lab. Compare this to the latency on a 4G LTE network, which averages around 50 milliseconds.

The real promise of 5G

AT&T's test of its 5G network as a cable replacement is just the beginning for the technology. The superfast speeds and low latency not only make it a great replacement for traditional wired broadband services, but it could also pave the way for connecting at least 100 billion devices to the internet, enabling and improving a slew of smart monitoring sensors like streetlights, traffic signals, and self-driving vehicles.

While there's already been lots of talk about 5G networks, it's still early days for the technology. The industry hasn't even come to an agreement on what the standards for 5G look like -- an optimistic forecast for that is in 2018.

Still, wireless operators are pushing forward. Verizon Wireless got the hype train rolling late last year when it said it would be the first to deploy field trials and commercially deploy 5G. AT&T followed suit, announcing last month that it's testing out 5G for a single business customer in Austin. And now it will test the service with residential customers. Sprint and T-Mobile are also gearing up for 5G testing.

This year is expected to be a year of testing. Fixed wireless services, like the one AT&T is testing, won't likely begin to roll out at scale until at least 2018, and most of the really cool stuff that 5G will supposedly enable that wireless companies talk about is still at least a few years away.