The noise around 5G is growing. The new mobile data standard is not only faster than 4G but also capable of handling many more devices, which promises a huge boom for the Internet of Things (IoT), smart cities and all kinds of connectivity. However, there is still plenty of work to be done.
At this year's Mobile World Congress, Samsung showed off its 5G home routers and wowed attendees with speeds of up to four gigabits-per-second . Real world speeds will be slower, of course. EE's 5G trials in the UK last year reached speeds of 2.8 gigabits-per-second, which is still a significant boost from 4G.
In the US, both T-Mobile and Verizon have promised to have 5G connectivity in dozens of cities by the end of 2019. Similar work is underway in South Korea and China. However, analysts say the European Union is lagging behind. In the UK, the spectrum auction necessary to begin the 5G era began a couple of months ago.
The first 5G-enabled smartphones probably won't be available until 2020 but we may not need the devices in our pockets to start seeing changes driven by the new standard.
City infrastructure will become smarter. Sensors will use the 5G network to transmit real-time data, from how full the bins are to which parking spaces are empty. That will help town planners understand demand and respond accordingly. Sending a truck to empty bins only when they are full, for example, will save time and fuel.
Smart meters that monitor energy usage will talk to smart grids that manage clean power storage and release it as necessary. Traffic lights and street lamps will monitor the flow of vehicles, warning autonomous cars of jams ahead and allowing them to plot a faster route. As Adam Nethersole wrote on this blog last year, Barcelona is already demonstrating the possibilities .
Crucially, autonomous cars will communicate with each other too, avoiding the problem of each car taking the same shortcut and inadvertently producing another jam. Fleets of smart cars will spread themselves out, meaning less congestion and less pollution too, from noise and emissions, because cars spend less time idling.
Our streets will start to look different: instead of cluttering roads with signs for drivers, information, such as speed limits, can be transmitted and displayed inside the car instead. As autonomous cars replace human-driven ones, city centre car parks and petrol stations can be repurposed because the cars will take themselves out of town to park and refuel.
These cars will also be capable of sensing 5G signals from smartphones carried by pedestrians and cyclists - giving them early warning of approaching hazards. Individuals might be reticent at first of their phones being 'detected' by other devices, so privacy and security will be paramount.
Even so, we will be transmitting all kinds of other data. Doctors will receive streams of data from devices worn by patients. At first, this will be most useful to those with chronic health conditions, alerting clinicians of an approaching problem, but eventually we will see more wellness monitoring, with doctors calling us in if they detect early signs of a new condition.
As that data comes out, we'll get more data coming in - alerts from the smart home telling us that a parcel has arrived or that the kids are back safely from school, for example.
Cell towers on a 5G network are capable of handling many more connections - hundreds of thousands, rather than thousands - which will be vital with so many devices on the network. Some will require fat pipes, using 5G's speed to deliver streaming video games or 3D movies, but many will need only trickles of low bandwidth information, such as that from IoT devices.
As Doug Mohney wrote here last September, being able to send large amounts of data very quickly opens up the possibilities for edge computing. These devices do not need enormous power themselves when they can draw on intensive computation elsewhere. That's the final piece of the 5G puzzle.
However, as Doug noted, that capacity has to exist. The 5G revolution promises a lot but its scale means that it will happen slowly. Networks, city planners, car manufacturers, mobile OEMs, application developers and data centers all have work ahead of them if they are to be ready. Change, like using 4G in a busy stadium, is sometimes frustratingly slow.