Why it matters. 5G (shorthand for the fifth generation of wireless networks) will enable a wide range of products, including self-driving cars, virtual reality and other parts of the growing Internet of Things that all rely on super-fast connectivity.
How it works. Data moves quickly along high-frequency airwaves, but those airwaves get stopped by objects in their path. That means that providers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile would have to use collections of smaller transmitters to deliver those revolutionary speeds to phones and other devices rather than the classic cell towers, which have a more extended range.
The wireless industry forecasts that building nationwide 5G networks will require 300,000 new cell cites (the size of pizza boxes) to be erected by 2020. For comparison, there are currently 150,000 cell towers in existence today.
Providers could also build 5G networks using more reliable, but lower-frequency, airwaves. This is the chunk of spectrum that the Trump administration is talking about nationalizing.
What it does. The promise of 5G is not just that consumers will have faster data speeds, but it also offers two other key benefits:
1. Less lag as data moves across the network. That makes it more feasible, for example, to control an industrial machine remotely or to communicate information in real time to a self-driving car.
2. While 4G was aimed primarily at smartphones, 5G is designed to handle phones plus all manner of Internet-of-things devices. Some of these devices need high-speed connections, while others are tiny sensors that require only a trickle of communication.
Carriers in the US are targeting 2020 for widespread launch. That seems like a long wait, but it's still an ambitious timeline—5G brings with it new antennas, new devices, and new applications for wireless data.
"Where you saw a growth in 4G was around data-centric, smartphone-centric use cases," says Rob Topol, a general manager for Intel's 5G business. "We're looking beyond the smartphone for 5G." In particular, that means categories like automotive, virtual reality, drones, and more should reap its benefits first.
There is an excellent YouTube Video on 5G that will give you even more information.