The U.S.’s Big Three cell service providers (now that Sprint merged with T-Mobile) have long touted 2020 arrival of the fifth-generation network standard. In bold web graphics and splashy TV commercials, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have all lauded 5G as the most revolutionary advance in wireless communication since, well, 4G.

5G may represent an exponential jump in speed, coverage and reliability over the 4G LTE networks connecting most of the world until now—but not necessarily all at once. In ads of its own, Verizon claimed its 5G network speeds would operate 200x faster than the 4G LTE connection already topping the pre-5G heap.

True for some users in some locations, widespread rollouts are expected later this year.

Is Faster Better?

Day to day, noted tech columnist Jason Aten for “Inc.,” most U.S. consumers will not notice a big change when browsing the Internet on 5G phones. The reason? 5G speeds are expected to be far faster than needed to surf the web.

However, Aten did admit that a case could be made for the “cool” factor of being able to share and live stream HD video. Still, he explained, while 5G may compete with broadband on speed it is unlikely to replace Wi-Fi—which is pretty quick and often freely accessible.

Backing up the notion that 5G reality may not live up to the hype, a report by the global wireless industry GSM Association found that, though 5G is live in 24-plus markets and 66 percent of the world’s population is connected via mobile internet, 4G is expected to dominate.

In “The Mobile Economy 2020,” it predicted 4G would expand its share of the market from 52 percent of smartphones in 2019 to 57 percent by 2025. By comparison, it estimated that 5G will hold 15 percent of the global market share five years from now. Still, GSMA valued the overall mobile economy at $4.9 Trillion by 2024.

Not All 5G Is Created Equal

To further complicate things, carriers touting 5G service may have been comparing apples and oranges: Higher frequencies mean faster speeds but over much shorter distances. T-Mobile’s 5G network was built on low-band 600 mHz (millihertz) and mid-band, sub-6 GHz (gigahertz) frequencies, which can carry signals for miles and still offer measurable improvements over 4G.

Verizon’s 5G Ultra-Wideband network was designed to rely on millimeter waves—in the 30 to 300 GHz frequency range per Science Direct (aka the other end of the 5G spectrum)—for low-latency, high-throughput transmission in densely populated areas and special uses. AT&T took a mixed approach, its signals switching between the mm-Wave spectrum in densely populated areas to mid-/low-spectrum in rural and suburban locales.

The real excitement over 5G moves beyond speed into lower “latency” territory which affects a wireless network’s reaction time. Lower latency rates are critical to functions which require near instantaneous feedback such as with driverless cars and remote surgery, two futuristic sounding uses made possible by 5G.

On a mundane level, it is believed that low-latency 5G connections could provide instant access to cloud computing resources, making data immediately available and internal memory or processing power less of a concern. A shift like that could facilitate the use of robots and remote operators in historically dangerous industries like mining.

5G’s ability to process mountains of data more quickly may also enable both “touch feedback,” adding new sensory levels to the virtual-reality gaming experience, and virtually-enhanced real world applications (i.e., first responders live streaming service calls for on-the-spot medical consultations).

While 5G is already in use, the list of opportunities promised by combining 5G with IoT—the Internet of Things network of interconnections which allows devices to collect, transfer and exchange data sans human interface—has continued to outpace reality. For example:


  • 3D printing
  • Connected homes
  • Augmented gaming
  • Remote control industrial automation

Coming soon

  • Smart grids
  • Assisted driving
  • Remote diagnostics

Science fiction (for now)

  • Remote surgery
  • AI traffic flow management
  • Virtual 3D presence & VR gaming
  • Self-heating, -cooling & -fitting clothes

Keeping Up with the Jetsons

The most widely-hyped potential use of 5G networks relates to IoT. Tech futurists have awaited the internet-connected home since at least 2011, according to CNN, but adoption rates have been slow. Data collection firm Statista showed that consumer demand for smart home devices is not all that broad.

iProperty Management found that only 14 percent of those surveyed knew what IoT stood for. Too, just 7.7 percent of U.S. households owned at least one smart home appliance in 2019, yet 1-in-5 is expected to transition to smart home technology by 2023. Millennials were said to be most open to such trends.

As for entertainment, the days of 3D holographic projection (Think: Princess Leia in “Star Wars”) may or may not be far off. “Venture Beat” 5G correspondent Jeremy Horowitz pointed out that, in theory, 5G speeds and latency rates may also one day make it possible to augment sight and sound with touch and smell in VR gaming.

For now? Both remain what software designers call vaporware: killer, Jetsons-style developments which have yet to materialize and, in reality, may never translate.


Chase that Digital Unicorn!

Like what you just read? Follow these select source links:

Horwitz, Jeremy. “A Quick 5G Guide: Separating Reality from Hype” (Oct. 25, 2019).

Aten, Jason. “What’s Real and What’s Hype With 5G? Here’s What You Need to Know” (May 10, 2019).

GSM Association. “5G Moves from Hype to Reality—but 4G Still King” (March 5, 2020).

Sutter, John D. “When Refrigerators Tweet and Washing Machines Text” (Jan. 7, 2011).

Statista. “Digital Market Outlook: Smart Appliances (United States).”