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5G: The Coming Key to Technology's Future

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The annual Consumer Electronics Show is driving tens of thousands of techies to Las Vegas this week to get their hands on the latest in cutting-edge gadgets, robots and vehicles, some of which are likely still years ahead of their time, reported U.S. News.

Concept models and products that may never reach the consumer marketplace – at least in their current forms – are hardly new to CES expos. But in 2018, many CES-showcased ideas that in recent years would have been considered works in progress are appearing more practical, thanks to an imminent leap forward in their underlying telecom technology.

Enhanced virtual-reality capabilities, digitally integrated infrastructure and transportation systems, and "smart" manufacturing – items and ideas all considered a ways off as recently as two or three years ago – stand to benefit immensely from the advent of 5G connectivity, which the world is likely to see as soon as this year.

"This technology is going to offer new types of services that were not possible before, but also reduces the cost," Matt Grob, executive vice president of technology for Qualcomm Technologies, said Monday during a 5G-focused panel discussion at CES. "The demand is really clear."

5G – the fifth generation of wireless connectivity – will, at a basic level, allow consumers to download things significantly faster on compatible devices. When 4G rolled out in 2009, it allowed consumers to download at a speed of about 100 megabits per second. In other words, a person would be able to download the two-hour-long movie "Guardians of the Galaxy" in about six minutes, according to the Consumer Technology Association.

But once 5G is fully up and running – with isolated tests and rollouts expected as soon as late 2018 and full adoption likely in place by 2020 – a person would be able to download that same movie in 3.6 seconds. That's about the amount of time it would take to ask a digital assistant like Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa, "Is my movie downloaded yet?"

"This kind of 'fiber experience in your pocket' is not a bad way to describe it. But it's also so much more," said Erik Ekudden, head of technology and architecture at Ericsson. "Any system that we'll be talking about here, any industrial system, could really benefit from this."

During the Monday panel, Ekudden spoke of 5G's advanced speeds and connectivity bringing "a lot of financial and technical benefits in terms of revamping and rebuilding technological manufacturing plants," opening new doors for factories and automated machinery.

[READ: The U.S. Economy Is Looking Good for 2018]

Grob, meanwhile, discussed 5G's ability to enhance vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity, allowing cars on the road to receive information about which vehicle may be braking or swerving in front of them before a human driver can react.

"The number of fatalities [on the road] is unacceptably high, and this is the kind of an area where the requirements of a radio link require 5G connectivity," he said. "What that means in highway speeds – [a vehicle being able to react to something] 6 to 8 feet [in front of it] – that's a lifesaver."

Grob and Ekudden also highlighted the possibilities for enhanced virtual-reality experiences – which could perhaps lead to VR technology becoming more widely adopted outside of the gaming community – and advanced health care-monitoring services.

But they noted additionally that one of 5G's most enticing aspects is that those responsible for rolling it out have learned from cybersecurity concerns presented by 4G and 3G connections.

"A lot more thought's going into the whole piece around security to make sure that's part of the fundamental fabric of what we've got there with 5G," said Chris Stark, Nokia's chief business development officer for North America. "I think anything to do with the consumer [in terms of security] – I think that's got a fairly big upside."

Stark also touched on 5G's eventual ability to allow cities to better manage internal transportation, enhancing "the efficiency by which people and goods move around." Steve Koenig, a senior director of market research at the Consumer Technology Association, which helps run each year's CES events, speculated 5G could push more cities and regions into "smarter" territory to the ultimate benefit of their citizens.

"There's so much to talk about here … whether it's security, transportation, environment, energy," he said during an introductory keynote Monday morning.

Companies have seized on CES as an opportunity to roll out their plans for 5G connectivity and compatible devices. For example, Samsung on Monday highlighted the partnership announced last week with Verizon to bring 5G connectivity to the Sacramento, California, area at some point in the second half of the year.

Around the same time, AT&T announced plans to bring 5G to a dozen markets across the country by year's end.

Several experts in attendance at CES on Monday were a bit skeptical 5G would be ready to roll out for most Americans before late 2019 or 2020. Grob and Ekudden, however, noted that 4G's rollout was more rapid than 3G's, so there's potential for the new wave to come quickly – especially considering the U.S. is competing to beat other 5G-interested countries such as China, Japan and South Korea to the punch.

Indeed, the technology doesn't seem nearly as far off as it once did, and its enhanced download and operating speeds open the door to the kinds of futuristic innovations that were merely concept models at CES conferences past.

"Imagine what's going to be possible in a 5G world. It's truly amazing to ruminate on this," Koenig says.

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