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The “OK, So What Exactly Is 5G?” Syllabus

A handy guide to help you decide whether to hop aboard the tech industry’s latest hype train

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Do you get excited when you hear the THX Deep Note sound effect before a film, even though you don’t know what THX means, does, or even stands for? If so, read on, because you may be at risk of buying an overpriced 5G-enabled smartphone for no discernible reason.

Let’s start with the basics. “5G” stands for fifth generation, as in fifth generation wireless technology. Every decade or so, a couple of groups that have extremely long names—the International Telecommunication Union and the 3rd Generation Partnership Project—develop new standards for wireless communication that are implemented globally. Each new standard means faster web browsing speeds, reduced latency, and the ability to connect more devices to a network at the same time. In other words, the internet becomes more responsive for a greater number of people. We’re currently due for an upgrade, which is why you’re starting to see commercials that make building cellphone towers seem patriotic and sponcon explainers trying to sell you on the limitless possibilities of really, really fast internet.

Every new “G” has a bigger impact than the last as more human activity shifts online. 5G will bring with it emergent technologies, geopolitical intrigue, and, of course, deceptive advertising by your least favorite wireless carrier. Here are the steps you should take to get ready for the 5G revolution. (Step 1: Don’t call it a revolution.)

If you want to learn more about the OG (and 2G, 3G, and 4G): Wired’s guide to 5G offers a summation of how we got here. In short, 1G brought us cellular voice calls, 2G brought texting, 3G brought fast web browsing, and 4G brought data-intensive navigation services like Uber.

If you want to see some of the sci-fi stuff 5G will make possible: CNET has a list of “7 incredible things you can do with 5G,” which is mostly stuff that companies have been promising to do with 4G, such as ushering in a new wave of delivery drones, driverless cars, and advances in virtual reality. 5G should make these use cases more viable. For more cutting-edge uses, check out this CBS News story about the 5G connectivity lab that Verizon built in New York to give startups the chance to experiment with lightning-fast internet. Among the new ideas developed there is “volumetric video,” which utilizes dozens of cameras to create 360-degree holograms of people or environments. This tech has been used to create immersive film sets and holographic runway models, but 5G could allow it to be implemented at scale by a variety of businesses and individual creators. 5G will also be a boon for the decade’s most annoying buzzword, “The Internet of Things,” because it will allow more devices to access wireless networks at the same time. Smart toaster owners, rejoice.

If you like to live every week like it’s infrastructure week: Read this New York Times feature on the battle between cities and wireless carriers over the construction of new 5G cell stations. 5G is faster than previous wireless networks but has a much shorter range, which means that companies like Verizon and AT&T are in the process of building hundreds of thousands of refrigerator-sized boxes to ensure wide and consistent cellular coverage. That’s frustrating some communities that don’t want bulky cell stations in their neighborhoods or feel that the telcos aren’t paying enough to take over public land. There are also concerns about exposure to cellular radiation causing health problems, but no conclusive evidence has proved that wireless networks are dangerous.

If you want to know when your carrier is getting 5G: Android Authority has individual rollout timelines for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. But the short answer is that all four companies are hyping up the benefits of 5G at the same time they build out their networks, and they’re nowhere close to being completed. You can generally expect limited 5G coverage in major cities by the end of 2019 and the beginnings of a nationwide network sometime in 2020. However, most phones on the market today won’t be compatible with 5G networks.

If you want a 5G phone right now: The Verge has a list of the 5G phones that have been announced so far, though again, we’re still a long way from nationwide coverage.

If you’re an iPhone owner used to getting new features years after they are invented: Expect a 5G (foldable?) iPhone in 2020 at the earliest, according to Bloomberg.

If you want to know how 5G could be used to undermine American interests: Read this Vox backgrounder on the beef between the United States and Huawei, the Chinese tech giant that builds the networking equipment that will be used in the 5G rollout. The White House and intelligence agencies believe that Huawei could one day use 5G as a Trojan horse to hack America’s connected devices at scale, at the bidding of the Chinese government. Read this Bloomberg story about Huawei’s critics to get a full taste of the doomsday, Order 66 scenario: “Think of self-driving cars that suddenly mow down unsuspecting pedestrians. Think of drones that fly into the intakes of airliners.” These worries have prompted President Donald Trump’s administration to float the idea of nationalizing the 5G network and taking it out of the control of companies such as Huawei, AT&T, and Verizon. Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor who coined the term net neutrality, outlines the pros and cons of such a drastic decision.

If you want to know how much this world-changing technology is going to cost you: Check out this Fortune interview in which a T-Mobile executive promises that the company’s 5G data plans won’t cost any more than its current ones. This, of course, is a feint. If people want to download more Netflix movies or stream video games on their phones, they’ll have to buy larger data plans to make use of 5G’s benefits. And identical pricing is hardly guaranteed. CNET rounded up some examples of telco executives using a lot more weasel words when it came to pricing plans.

If you’re curious about the downsides of 5G: In the very same CBS News clip in which a startup founder hypes volumetric video, he admits that someone could use the technology to manipulate a rendering of a person’s body parts against his or her will. It’s easy to imagine 5G increasing the proliferation of videos that put celebrities’ faces on the bodies of porn stars, which unfortunately is already a thing. And a faster internet may only mean that we arrive at the destabilizing impacts of technology on society—such as AI-powered job displacement, social isolation caused by VR, and increased traffic caused by self-driving cars—faster than we would have otherwise.

If you’re actually looking for less internet rather than a symbiotic connection between your phone and your brain: Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill and The New York Times’s Kevin Roose recently wrote about their efforts to cut technology out of their lives. The world may be more connected than ever and moving at an alarmingly fast rate, but unplugging remains a viable option.