You're probably going to hear a lot this week about 5G — the newfangled wireless technology that's going to turbocharge everyone's smartphones.
CES, the Las Vegas extravaganza formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, kicks off Tuesday. Next-generation wireless networks will figure prominently in tech companies' bright, shiny plans for interconnected digital devices, with super-fast 5G systems the glue that holds it all together.
Last week, AT&T announced that it will roll out 5G networks in a dozen U.S. cities by the end of the year. It didn't say which ones, but the telecom giant clearly wants to make sure rival Verizon, which says it will have 5G networks in Sacramento and a handful of other cities by year's end, isn't hogging the 5G spotlight.
So what do you need to know about 5G?
Here's what the wireless industry wants to get across:
- It’ll be faster — way faster — than current 4G and 4G LTE systems.
- It’ll be more reliable, with far fewer lags in data streams.
- It’ll be totally awesome because, you know, faster, less laggy.
Here's what they'd rather you didn't dwell on:
- You’re almost certainly going to have to a buy a new phone.
- Your monthly bill probably will be higher (maybe a lot higher).
- Even though billions of dollars are being invested in 5G networks, the typical smartphone user probably doesn’t need all that speed, at least right now.
"If I already have perfect 4G coverage, why do I need 5G?" said Alan Gould, chief executive of Westlake Software, a Southland tech firm specializing in wireless systems. "Yeah, I can download things a little faster, but that's a novelty."
He said that for people who use their phones primarily for texting, talking and accessing the web, it will be hard to see an appreciable difference between current speeds and 5G connections.
"If you're an avid gamer, or if you're downloading high-definition movies into your phone, it's going to be fantastic," Gould said. "But that's hardly everyone."
True. Then again, it's hard to say what the mobile online experience will be like once software and app developers start cooking up new uses for all that horsepower.
"We'll have to see what the next generation of 5G applications brings us," said Kristian Hoffmann, president of the Central California wireless consulting firm Fire2Wire.
For AT&T, the sky's the limit. The company said last week that "the promise of mobile 5G is seemingly endless."
"5G will change the way we live, work and enjoy entertainment," Melissa Arnoldi, president of AT&T Technology and Operations, said in a statement. "We're moving quickly to begin deploying mobile 5G this year and start unlocking the future of connectivity for consumers and businesses."
She said faster speed with little if any interruption "will ultimately deliver and enhance experiences like virtual reality, future driverless cars, immersive 4K video and more."
That's undoubtedly true, which means 5G is an exciting prospect for industry. Every time technology improves, people can do more with it, which creates more business opportunities.
But let's be realistic: The typical smartphone user isn't going to be indulging in virtual reality, driverless cars or immersive 4K video. He or she will want 5G capabilities with more everyday functionality.
For me, the big question at this point is who'll pay for all these whiz-bang developments. And the answer is … nobody's saying. At least not yet.
I asked AT&T how much 5G service will cost subscribers. A spokesman said the company isn't yet offering such specifics.
I asked Verizon the same. A spokesman declined to comment.
The consulting firm Accenture, in a report commissioned by the wireless industry, estimated last year that telecom companies will invest as much as $275 billion over seven years building out 5G networks.
Other estimates have placed the price tag for 5G infrastructure at about $200 billion annually for at least the first few years of service.
Obviously someone's going to foot that bill. It doesn't take a lot of head-scratching to figure that, sooner or later, wireless customers will get stuck with the tab.
Analysts say they expect the companies to tiptoe toward higher rates. First they'll want people to experience and enjoy faster wireless speeds.
After customers grow accustomed to enhanced service, rate hikes for "premium" 5G access will follow.
The iPhone was introduced in 2007. That year, the average wireless customer paid $608 for a year of service, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
By 2014, the annual cost of service had risen 58% to $963 per person.
5G eventually will take hold as the U.S. wireless standard. It seems a safe bet that service costs will reflect the tsunami of data available to smartphone users.
Having a mobile connection that moves like the Mach 5 undoubtedly will be very cool, once we figure out what to do with it.
But it won't be cheap.