Here’s why crazy fast 5G wireless could soon become reality

Cellular tower at sunset
Photograph by Chris Gould — Getty Images

There’s no doubt that the wireless industry will eventually move to 5G—a next-generation, high-speed network. Debate rages, however, over how quickly that may happen.

In an interview with CNET last week, Verizon Wireless (VZ) said that it plans to start field trials on 5G technology within the next 12 months, with the goal of making it widely available by 2017. AT&T (T) quickly responded to Verizon’s announcement by claiming that it was too early for any company to make 5G “promises” since the industry has yet to agree on an international standard and the technology is still in its infancy.

Alberto Canal, Verizon’s vice president of communications, disagrees and believes the telecommunications company can, and soon will, launch 5G technology. In an interview with Fortune, Canal reaffirmed the company’s plans to launch 5G trials next year, and believes Verizon—working with industry partners like Cisco (CSCO) and Samsung—will “beat the 2020 date” that most industry experts have set for an industry-wide 5G roll out.

Regardless of timing, carriers and industry experts agree 5G is the future of wireless technology. According to Canal, the technology is up to 50 times faster than today’s 4G LTE, network, which blankets over 97% of the U.S. It also allows for increased capacity to accommodate growing wireless demand.

The demand for wireless networks is nothing short of astounding. In North America, alone, communications firm Ericsson says mobile data users consumed 562 petabytes of data per month in 2014, far exceeding any other country in the world. In comparison, Western Europe used over 341 petabytes of mobile data each month during the same time period.

Tom Sawanobori, CTO at industry organization CTIA, believes mobile data traffic in North America will grow by 600% by 2019. A core component of that growth will be the Internet of Things—a term used to define smart devices that connect to the Internet—such as Google’s Nest Learning thermostat, which programs temperature changes based on a user’s habits.

While 5G may have its benefits some experts suggest talk about the new wireless technology is premature. Before 5G reaches the market, the wireless industry must collectively agree on an international standard, how it will operate, and what services to provide.

5G will require several “iterations” before a standard is endorsed, says Sawanobori. Although the new wireless technology is certainly an industry concern, the hoopla surrounding it right now isn’t necessarily warranted, he explains. “For the foreseeable future, 4G LTE is sufficient. But we always want to anticipate what the future capabilities will be,” he says. “So there’s a process in the U.S. and globally that will define the next generation. Meantime, 4G LTE is a great platform.”

Other industry experts, however, scoff at Verizon’s idea all together. Philip Solis, research director at ABI Research, believes Verizon’s 5G trial announcement is simply “fluffy marketing” and an attempt at “associating their brand with cutting-edge technology.” Verizon’s 5G hopes, he says, “is not realistic.”

Canal brushed off such charges, saying that the market is overestimating the amount of time it will take to deploy 5G. Verizon has established a 5G Technology Forum aimed at getting “some great minds into the 5G sandboxes…so they can get to work on the future.” Those sandboxes, Canal believes, could be a key component that boosts 5G’s rollout.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the challenges Verizon’s 5G plan faces. The U.S. wireless industry is fully entrenched in 4G LTE, and many companies are currently working on network improvements to LTE Advanced (the next iteration of the technology that promises faster speeds) rather than 5G.

Meanwhile, even if 5G was readily available consumers would require specially made devices built to accommodate 5G networks, and it’s unclear how long that could take. All of that neglects the simple reality that the industry—both in the U.S. and worldwide—needs to form a standard, which according to Sawanobori, could take at least two years to complete. From there, companies would build networks, although building networks is not the same as making them ubiquitous: it’s taken nearly six years to cover over 300 million Americans and in some parts of the world 3G, the technology LTE replaced, still isn’t available.

So, while there’s no consensus on exactly when we can expect to see 5G, at least one industry expert believes it won’t make a major impact on consumer lives until much later than some believe.

“5G will be deployed in full force—more coverage, more supporting devices, maximized implementation of technology—closer to 2030 than 2020 and the world will be very different by then,” Solis says.

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