AT&T is expected to officially announce that it will begin testing a next-generation 5G wireless network this year, reports Re/code. The telecoms provider will join Verizon, which is already actively working on its 5G network. Though 5G service won't be offered to smartphone users until the end of this decade, each company -- and dozens like them in countries around the world -- are in a race to be the first to offer 4G's successor.
When AT&T's and Verizon's 5G networks do officially launch, the technology will blow the doors off the "fast" speeds we associate with 4G. 5G networks are expected to be between ten and 100 times faster than 4G networks and will be capable of downloading a 2-hour HD movie to your smartphone in under three seconds.
But there are other reasons AT&T and its competitors are racing to be ready to offer the service as soon as it's commercially viable. The primary one is because 5G wireless is about so much more than just bringing faster speeds to smartphones. As Fast Company wrote in October, 5G will be the backbone of the Internet of Things revolution in which all our personal devices are interconnected and talking to each other, from our smartphones to the lights in the house and the locks on our office doors. 5G will also support the massive infrastructure of sensors that will need to be embedded in everything from a city's water and sewage pipes to the lightbulbs in its street lamps so that everything can be constantly monitored and attended to. Finally, 5G will be essential for driverless cars, which will pack so many sensors into them (and roadways) that they will generate gigabytes of data every single second.
In short, the dream we have of future smart cars, smart homes, and smart cities won't happen without 5G. And the companies that can offer the service aren't going to have a problem finding customers and clients.
But though we won't see a rollout of widespread 5G networks and infrastructure until at least 2019 or 2020, AT&T will begin using a limited 5G network in certain areas this year. They'll be using their fledgling service as a wireless broadband replacement in order to get Internet connectivity into rural and remote homes and communities that currently can only access the Internet via slower DSL or satellite connections, notes Re/Code. Bringing faster Internet speeds to rural communities was a condition that was placed on the company in order to meet its Direct TV merger-related commitments.
As for the rest of us, we still have one more major upgrade to 4G, called LTE-Advanced-Plus, before we get to 5G. It will deliver speed improvements to our 4G technology -- just not the kinds of speeds we'll be seeing with the blazingly fast 5G networks coming by the end of the decade.