5G Could Eventually Transform Our World – But for Now, Think Faster Downloads

It’s a brave new world of cellular communication. The fifth generation of wireless – or 5G – has arrived.

Some industry analysts say it could be a game changer that impacts everything from health care delivery to self-driving cars and will mean lightning-fast downloads. But others say it simply means consumers will be even more attached to their cellphones than they already are.

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Meanwhile, some worry that we are adopting the technology without knowing if it’s truly safe.

We asked Ally Marotti, a business reporter at the Chicago Tribune, the latest about 5G technology. 

What is 5G and how will it differ from the 4G technology that runs most of our mobile devices now?

5G is short for the fifth generation of wireless. Every “G” that we’ve had in the past is just the previous generation.

4G was the generation that brought us being able to access the internet online and being able to stream music. I believe 2G was the one that brought us initial texting. The first generation was just your basic cellphone.

So the thing about 5G is that it is doing all of that but much, much faster. It’s downloading things instantly in the blink of an eye on your phone. But it also goes a lot deeper and broader than that with the way businesses can use 5G. There’s a lot of futuristic talk around it. Driverless cars, that kind of stuff. That’s a long way off.

So it sounds like in the long term this could bring transformational change but in the short term, for consumers, it’s just going to mean faster downloads.

Exactly. I talked to one expert who said 5G right now is in the hype cycle and that deployment is going to be a lot slower than people think. He said, “Yeah you will get faster internet but that’s not really a breakthrough …” which is true. I tested a couple of networks. I downloaded Beyonce’s “Homecoming” in like 17 seconds and it’s like a 2.5-hour movie. So that is really cool if you’re a consumer. And it’s not just quicker data download, it’s more data download – because we have all been increasing the amount of data we use on our phones exponentially over the past 10 years.

For businesses, for hospitals, for cities even, that’s where the experts are saying you might see the true transformation. But again, it is going to be a few years before we really see anything that is going to make you stop and say “Wow.”

We always get a lot of hype around new technology, particularly if it could make companies billions of dollars. How quickly do you think reality will catch up with the hype?

It’s going to be a few years. First of all, we all have to buy these phones that operate on the 5G network because right now the phone you have does not operate on a 5G network. And they are very expensive right now. The four major carriers launched their 5G networks last year in Chicago. So they are all working on building out their networks starting in the city center and working their way out.

Until Apple rolls out a 5G phone, which they haven’t yet – some people are speculating that will be later this year – it will take time. And these phones are expensive. You are looking at $1,000 at least.

Which businesses or types of businesses seem most prepared to benefit from this technology? Are there businesses that 5G is going to make possible that wouldn’t be possible without it?

I think there totally will be. One expert I talked to said it’s really hard to dream up all the different ways that 5G could be used. There’s faster downloads that we can all comprehend but then there’s stuff that we can’t really wrap our heads around. I know hospitals are starting to think about … how can they do remote surgery or robotic surgery? I’ve heard that stadiums could potentially get into it. Say if Taylor Swift is giving a concert in Japan and Soldier Field deploys 5G it might be possible watch a holographic projection of Taylor Swift and you can sit there and watch the whole concert just like you were actually there.

Which is the technology that has trouble sending a signal through walls? That seems a potentially fundamental flaw.

That’s the Verizon technology. But the other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of these companies are rolling out other devices that can run 5G. For example, Verizon has a 5G home device that you can put in your home and it will transmit 5G to your phone if you are on the network and you don’t need to have a 5G-compatible device for that. So this is like the first wave of devices that are coming out that help bridge the gap and then there will be the next level of 5G.

Is there anything to suggest 5G may be detrimental to health?

The problem with this discussion is that there have not been a ton of long-term, in-depth studies about this because it is new technology.

The concern is that we are tapping into this new spectrum of wavelength that we haven’t really used for commercial communications before. I talked to a bunch of scientists and experts about this and there’s no one study out of America that says this could be a health issue but some have said that it can harm birds or wildlife potentially. If you think about the waves – if it can’t travel through a tree (or bird) then what is it doing to that tree? One thing to note though is the FCC does have health standards that all of these wireless companies say that they abide by. But there are a lot of Chicago residents I talked to who say they still want more (study) and they don’t want this to be a real-life experiment on humans.

Do you think those health concerns could slow down the rollout at all or do you think the rollout is just going to happen and we’ll find out later if there are health problems or not?

I think it is already happening. Obviously downtown all the networks are here and have been operating but I think maybe in the residential areas is where we will get some pushback and that could potentially slow it down. There is one group here that I’ve talked to a few times called Stop 5G Chicago and they have turned their focus to the suburbs because the suburbs do seem to be putting up a pretty decent fight and maybe potentially have the power to slow this down a little bit.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marotti joins “Chicago Tonight” in conversation along with Jefferson Wang, a leading business and technology consultant at Accenture, which works with major communications providers and businesses across the country and advises on 5G projects.

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