The mobile industry is cranking up its hype machine for sleek new “5G” networks that it says will make your phone and everything else faster and wonderful. If you believe the marketing. But no one can really say how 5G will change your life; many of the apps and services that will exploit its speed haven’t been created yet. Look back at the last big wireless upgrade, though, and you can get a sense of how profound that change might be.
Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, and it quickly become obvious that the era’s 3G wireless networks couldn’t handle millions of people uploading photos of their kid’s playdate to Facebook or obsessing over “Words with Friends.” Not to mention managing their finances, health care and shopping for everything from shoes to homes. “When the smartphone came out it brought the 3G network to its knees,” Stanford engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith said. “The success of smartphones was because of 4G.”
4G speeds, the ones we’re used to today, made possible many of the things we now take for granted on our phones — Instagram, cloud storage, Netflix streaming. Or, for instance, that ride you got home from the bar. Without 4G, there would be no Uber or Lyft, which need connections fast and strong enough to call a driver on a moment’s notice, show customers where their driver is and give the companies the ability to track drivers in real-time. That’s not something 3G could handle.
Today, about 80 percent of U.S. adults have a smartphone , according to Pew Research Center, while industry group GSMA says 60 percent of the world’s 5 billion cellphones users do, too. Mobile video, including ones created by ordinary people, makes up 60 percent of all data traffic globally, according to telecom-equipment maker Ericsson. “Video was near-impossible to use effectively on 3G,” said Dan Hays, a mobile networks expert at consultancy PwC. “4G made mobile video a reality.”
Its influence has marked our world. Citizens filmed protests, police violence and revolutions on their phones. TV and movies disconnected from the living-room set and movie theater. Our attention spans were whipsawed by constant pings and constant hot fresh “content.” To watch Netflix in high-definition video, you need speed of at least 5 megabits per second; that’s where Verizon’s 4G network download speed range started in its early days. (Upload was and remains slower, a frustration for anyone who has ever tried to send a video from a crowd.)
Trying to stream a live video over Facebook, had this feature even existed in the 3G era, “wouldn’t have worked, or it would have worked inconsistently, or only under the best conditions,” said Nikki Palmer, head of product development for Verizon, the largest U.S. mobile carrier. “You would have got failures, you would have got retries, you would have got the equivalent of stalling on the network.” While 4G brought on a communications revolution and spawned startups now worth billions , even it wasn’t all it was hyped up to be.
See AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson in March 2011, talking about 4G and cloud computing in an attempt to win support for a proposed acquisition of rival T-Mobile: “Very soon we expect every business process, we expect every system in your home and in your car, every appliance, all your entertainment content, your work, all of your personal data, everything is going to be wirelessly connected.”
Not quite yet. Smart homes are not mainstream, and wireless business processes are a lot of what’s exciting the wireless industry about 5G. Hays remembers talking about the possibilities 4G would create for virtual and augmented reality. Those, of course, have yet to materialize. Just wait ’til next G.