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Your smartphone will be faster in 2016, just not insane 5G fast

Ignore the hot air about 5G next year. Here's how the carriers will add more zip to your wireless connection.

Here is Ericsson's 5G demo "phone."

Stephen Shankland/CNET

We've all been there. You pull out your smartphone to check out the trailer for "Batman v Superman," and the loading icon spins. And spins.

Sometimes, the cellular network just can't keep up with your voracious appetite for Facebook updates, Snapchat messages and streaming video. Don't worry, though, the carriers are working on it.

You may have heard rumblings of 5G. In 2016, you're going to hear a lot more about it. It's the next generation of wireless technology, and it promises to make the current 4G LTE connection feel like you're standing still. How fast is it? Downloading -- not just streaming -- the movie "Guardians of the Galaxy" would take seconds with 5G, as opposed to minutes with 4G.

It's the latest hook that carriers plan to trot out as the wireless war for your wallet continues. This year saw intensifying competition as carriers cut prices, offered iPhones for pennies and threw more data at you. Next year could see more of the same, with renewed promises for better, faster service.

In the mix will be a discussion of 5G. Verizon Wireless plans to hold field tests next year, and AT&T has said it will be involved in the technology's development. Telecom gear makers such as Ericsson and Huawei are boasting of speeds that surpass anything you can get from a physical connection. But here's some advice to anyone who may potentially get caught up in next year's hype: Don't buy into it.

"It's a lot of hot air," said Roger Entner, a consultant for Recon Analytics.

The truth is that full-blown deployment of 5G isn't expected until 2020, when everyone in the industry can agree what the technology actually looks like. While early entrants like Verizon plan to offer some form of commercial deployment in 2017, chances are you won't be able to access it then.

Fortunately, there are a few other tricks the carriers will be using to amp up your connection speed or, at the very least, liberate you from a data traffic jam.

Adding more highways

Brace yourself for a little wonkiness. The industry's favorite catchphrase going into 2016 is "carrier aggregation," which is the technical term for tying multiple bands of spectrum. It's like adding another highway to allow for more cars, and then raising the speed limit so they can go even faster.

speedtest-galaxycoreprime.jpg

You could see a boost in speed with next year's network improvements.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

This will enable your mobile device to access higher speeds from the networks. While carriers shy away from giving specific speed figures given the various factors, Entner said consumers on average could see a 20 percent bump once carrier aggregation is in play. The result: Photos download faster and movies stream with less buffering.

No. 4 US carrier Sprint, which has struggled with a reputation for poor service, goes further along that ledge. In markets where it uses the new technology, speeds jump 30 percent to 40 percent, according to Gunther Ottendorfer, head of technology for the carrier.

"You ain't seeing nothing yet," he said.

Borrowing Wi-Fi radio waves

Along the same lines as carrier aggregation is a technology called LTE-U. The U stands for unlicensed, as in the unlicensed spectrum employed by your Wi-Fi router. Under LTE-U, carriers would use that unlicensed spectrum as another highway to allow more traffic to your smartphone.

"The nice thing is that highway is quite big," said Michael Murphy, chief technology officer of Nokia Networks' North America business. T-Mobile said it plans to work with the industry to support LTE-U. In terms of using Wi-Fi, Verizon and AT&T will more broadly roll out Wi-Fi calling, which allows customers with spotty cellular coverage to make calls on a more reliable Wi-Fi network. AT&T said the feature, already available at T-Mobile and Sprint, is available on the latest iPhone. AT&T said it plans to add it on other devices soon. Verizon will push Wi-Fi calling to some Samsung smartphones starting this week, with more to come next year.

Back to 5G

While you won't see a 5G network next year, there will be a lot of work going on behind the scenes.

The effort going into upgrading networks, such as with carrier aggregation, is setting the foundation for the move to 5G. Companies like Verizon will also consult with industries, including agriculture and heavy machinery, to get their feedback on how a 5G network should work for them.

Emerging tech, such as virtual reality, could stand to benefit from the technology as well. First, there needs to be a common set of standards that everyone can work with, though, including how the hardware will talk with the networks.

"When we're designing a new system and architecture, we are stretching tech as far as we can," said Sheila Burpee Duncan, who works with Ericsson's business unit radio team. "That's why we need to try out the tech early."

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