tech nomad

5G: Unlocking more of the power — and problems — of the Internet

Mark Schiefelbein/ap /file

Even ears that aren’t usually piqued by tech talk may start picking up on an increasingly intense signal cutting through the conversation: 5G is incoming.

Yes, that’s one full G more than 4G (with none of the pesky LTE); and no, four of them weren’t enough. 

With each new iteration of number-plus-G comes a wave of chatty excitement across the gadgetsphere, but its translation to the money-flinging masses tends to simplify things into consumer-stroking assurances (“reliable!”) and pat promises (“faster!”). For many of us, the shift through the decades of the Internet age from 2G to 3G (’98) and 3G into 4G (’08) has just amounted to smarter, more annoying phones, plus “better” Internet, and more stuff to buy and plug in. 


Ten full years into the “latest” wireless technology — and at a time that feels increasingly post-app and peak-iPhone — you wouldn’t be wrong for feeling like the smartphone party is almost over, and we’re all still here, checking our phones.

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But if you consider how broadly the reach and, yes, speed of 4G was, and how fundamentally it changed the way we connect to it and each other — from the locks (and cameras) on our doors, to our FaceTime calls with Mom and Dad, to our Netflix subscriptions, to our Ubers, Yelps, maps, and snaps — you can fathom a general sense of what kind of potential paradigm shift may await with this coming upgrade.

Or maybe you can’t. I know it never struck me that a “faster” wireless connection could result in a horror movie that directs itself based on how scared I am, but a CNet report says it’s just a matter of time before our entertainment is watching us. These new two-way movies would “hinge on interactive video layers that use emotional analysis based on your phone's front-facing camera to adjust what you're watching in real time.”

Taken further, this hyperconnectivity — able to carry massive amounts of data with virtually no lag time — stands to make a range of our interactions with technology “two-way.” Imagine McDonald’s that know to have your McMuffin ready when you walk by and Gaps that know you just spilled coffee on your pants and episodes of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” that keep up with you.

Or don’t imagine any of those things. That might be better for the time being.


Even without any specifics, the powers (and profiteers) that be can sense an appetite building before anyone’s seen the menu. A memo released this past week by the Trump administration ushers 5G into the center of an initiative meant to meet the nation’s “nearly insatiable demand for spectrum access.”

“It is imperative,” the memo reads, “that America be first in fifth-generation (5G) wireless technologies — wireless technologies capable of meeting the high-capacity, low-latency, and high-speed requirements that can unleash innovation broadly across diverse sectors of the economy and the public sector.” 

Those sectors of the economy include medicine (where 5G will be integral to everything from 3-D CAT scans to robotically assisted surgeries to telemedicine and remote diagnosis, even procedures), manufacturing, construction, autonomous transit, energy, and others — you know, the ones that use computers. 

Add into this the ability to transmit and receive not just text and visual data, but also gestural, three-dimensional information in real time, and 5G stands to revolutionize not just education but (virtual) hands-on training across multiple industries. Don’t be surprised to hear the “Internet of Skills” emerge as the brainier little brother of the Internet of Things (which itself will hit a hyper-hormonal growth spurt with the arrival of 5G). 

The path to 5G becoming a reality is actually several tangled paths — a convergence of updated hardware and software, advances within and across existing 4G networks, cooperation between various carriers, and as-yet unfathomed applications.


As put in an overview for The Verge, “The 5G specification provides goalposts for carriers to reach with their networks, and a set of standardized technologies and tools to get there. And while deployment of 5G is expected by 2020, some networks may launch as early as 2019. 

If you want to zoom in on what makes 5G more than just “fast” (a linear way of understanding connectivity that’s soon to be as quaint as a stamp), you can read all about advances in millimeter waves, high frequency spectrum bands, and beam-steering antennae.

But the long view of 5G is one that looks right back at you, and it’s starting to take shape. Prepare to be dazzled, and a little creeped out.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @MBrodeur