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What you need to know about the coming 5G revolution

Revolution. That’s a big word. Often, the forward march of technology is about incremental change that piles up over time, but a revolution suggests a big leap. You’ve probably heard 5G referred to as the next revolution in cellular technology.

It is a big deal, but there’s a lot of information we need to wrap our heads around when it comes to understanding what 5G really means.

The next generation of cellular technology is called 5G and it comes on the heels of its predecessors, 3G and 4G. It promises faster speeds, wider coverage and low latency, meaning it will respond more quickly to requests. Think of clicking on a website in your phone browser and having the page load before you can even blink. Verizon calls 5G “one of the fastest, most robust technologies the world has ever seen.”

The upcoming 5G revolution is also aimed at delivering virtual-reality experiences and bringing more devices online, from sensors to robots to cars to smart-home gadgets. “Future smart factories and retailers, self-driving cars, untethered virtual and augmented realities, and other yet to be discovered experiences will grow up on tomorrow’s 5G networks,” says AT&T’s chief technology officer Andre Fuetsch.

One example in particular floats around when we hear about 5G: the ability to download a full movie in just seconds. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? The next generation of wireless tech is handing out some big promises, so here’s what you need to know about the coming of 5G.

Who’s on first?

The race is on among service providers to claim 5G bragging rights. Verizon announced in early October it was the first to deploy a commercial 5G network with the limited introduction of a 5G home broadband service in parts of Sacramento, Houston, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles. The issue here is that Verizon’s service doesn’t meet the globally recognized 5G standard. Verizon says it will adopt that industry standard in 2019 while rolling out its 5G mobile service for phones.

Meanwhile, AT&T is claiming the first standards-based mobile 5G network with a rollout set for some major cities, including Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans and Jacksonville. Don’t get too exited yet. What all of this really means is that we’re looking at waiting into 2019 before there are meaningful deployments of mobile 5G networks. T-Mobile says it is targeting 2020 for full nationwide 5G coverage for its customers.

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Will you need a new phone?

If you’re excited about 5G, then you’ll also need to get excited about buying a new phone or other equipment to take advantage of it. Even your $1,000 iPhone XS won’t cut it. Both Motorola and LG announced 5G-capable phones earlier this year, but the hardware won’t be out until 2019.

These early 5G smartphones will also need to work on older networks due to what could be a slow and spotty rollout of 5G. The Moto Z3, exclusive to Verizon, is a good example of this. It’s a 4G phone and it’s already available. Next year, you will be able to buy a 5G moto mod to add onto the phone so it will work with Verizon’s 5G network.

For people who don’t want to spring for a totally new phone, they’ll be able to test the 5G waters with mobile hotspots. These small devices will connect to the 5G network and you’ll then be able to connect your phone or computer to the hotspot. The advantage here is the ability to connect multiple devices to one fast wireless hotspot.

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What it all means

We know 5G is coming, though it may be slower to get to us than we might like. Smartphones are just one small piece of the 5G revolution. The blazing-fast speeds on our phones will be enjoyable, but the true future of 5G is in connecting all the pieces of our world together. Self-driving cars could talk to each other, making them safer and more reliable. Augmented-reality glasses could give us a new way of looking at the world around us.

We’re getting closer to a more impressive sci-fi-style future, and the seeds for that will be planted as 5G expands into reality in 2019 and then ramps up in 2020. In a decade, we may look back and marvel at how it all began.

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