5G networking is coming, so what does that mean for us?

A visitor walks past a 5G sign during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 28, 2017.
PHOTO: Reuters

You've heard of 5G, but do you know what it's actually for? The latest edition of CES (Consumer Electronics Show), a major annual technology convention held in Las Vegas, offered some answers last week.

5G is all about super fast connectivity. So any digital task that requires speed - for data to be collected by a smartphone, sent away for analysis, then received back, for instance - will change completely.

Streaming high quality video to social media will take off, just as FaceTime did with 4G. Instant translation of text and speech will be online and easy, allowing anyone, anywhere that speaks any language to seamlessly communicate.

Augmented reality could also become more common, because pointing your phone at something will instantly yield something useful. Face and object recognition could make it possible to point a phone at a horse race and for each animal and rider to be labelled.

Belgian company Mimesys even had a demo at CES of holographic meetings using Magic Leap's mixed reality headsets. That's something US telecoms company AT&T is also experimenting with on entertainment, suggesting that films, shows and games "could follow you out of the stores and onto the streets or into your home".

Sharp Electronics was showing how sports could be filmed live in 8K resolution and the images be streamed in real time to huge public screens.

5G will eventually enable driverless cars and other innovations that haven't yet been dreamed up, but this industry of engineers is trying its hardest to think creatively.

Exactly how fast will 5G networks be compared to current 4G LTE networks? 4G maxes out at 1Gbps, whereas 5G gets to 10Gbps. However, the exact speed of 5G depends entirely on what kind of 5G you're talking about. It's all about spectrum.

"What we deployed at the end of last year is millimetre wave, which gives high speeds and low latency, but it's not as good in terms of distance or penetration of buildings," says Alicia Abella, vice-president of advanced technology realisation at AT&T, which in late December launched a 5G service in 12 cities in the US.

The 5G first movers are mostly in the US with Verizon's 5G launch imminent, and T-Mobile to follow later this year.

At CES, chip maker Qualcomm revealed that 30 5G devices will be launched in 2019 using its 5G-capable Snapdragon 855 mobile platform and X50 modem. That includes some hotspots, but the majority are smartphones.

Samsung showed off a prototype of a 5G phone, two of which the Korean company intends to launch in 2019.

Qualcomm also showed a range of devices known to be 5G ready, including Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G, Vivo NEX 5G and Oppo Find X 5G. Meanwhile, LG has confirmed it will launch a 5G phone, as has Motorola, whose Z3 has a 5G Mod to make it compatible with 5G.

The first wave of 5G phones is not expected to be launched in Hong Kong until the latter half of this year.

"Hong Kong has only just started to allocate 5G spectrum, so we would not expect commercial 5G launches from operators until the second quarter of 2019 at the earliest," says Tim Hatt, head of research at GSMA Intelligence.

GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, and organises the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona each February.

"This is in part based on the timing for spectrum availability guided by the Hong Kong government," says Hatt.

About 4,500 MHz of spectrum - eight times the existing amount of 552 MHz of spectrum being used for 2G, 3G and 4G services in Hong Kong, according to the government - will be auctioned off to 5G network operators in April.

5G is exciting, but it's mostly unknown, and it's going to take time.

"We'll see more announcements that continue to hype up 5G, especially at Mobile World Congress," says Werner Goertz, research director at analyst company Gartner. "More providers will announce 'islands' of coverage, but in terms of when it becomes ubiquitous and relevant to people to take advantage of, that is not going to happen until 2020 and beyond."

For those after a glimpse of the future, 5G can't come soon enough.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.