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What Is 5G, and What Does It Mean for Consumers?

An SK telecom exhibitor directs the robot's movements using 5G at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, March 5, 2015.
Gustau Nacarino | Reuters
An SK telecom exhibitor directs the robot's movements using 5G at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, March 5, 2015.

In a few years, you may be able to download a full-length HD movie to your phone in a matter of seconds rather than minutes. And video chats will be so immersive that it will feel like you can reach out and touch the other person right through the screen.

At least, that's what the wireless companies envision for the future of mobile. While many parts of the world are still awaiting the rollout of 4G networks, the telecom industry is already looking ahead to the next generation of cellular technology, called 5G.

It was a big topic of discussion at the Mobile World Congress show last week, where companies like Nokia Networks, Huawei and Ericsson talked about what each is doing in the area of 5G and the possibilities it will create. (MWC is an annual event in Barcelona where the wireless industry comes together to show off the latest devices and technologies.)

But as an emerging technology, there are a lot of questions surrounding 5G. What is it exactly? How will it work? How will it affect consumers?

I asked industry experts, as well as companies like Nokia and Huawei, for their takes on 5G. Most agreed: The technology is still a long way from becoming a reality, but it has the potential to completely change the way we interact with wireless devices, from the smartphones in our pockets to the cars we drive.

What is 5G?

5G is the name being given to the next generation of wireless networks (this is the fifth generation, hence 5G), but beyond that, it's hard to define.

During a keynote address at MWC, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler compared 5G to a Picasso painting. "I see something different than you see," he said. "I think that's where 5G is right now. It's all in the eye of the beholder."

Uh, okay.

Read more from Re/Code:
Mapping the long, winding road to 5G wireless technology
A look at the first 5G "handset"
Ericsson CEO on 5G, Apple suit and net neutrality

The ambiguity around 5G is because it's still largely a concept at this point, and the wireless industry hasn't settled on any standards around the new network. But it's looking to achieve some key goals with 5G:

  • Significantly faster data speeds: Currently, 4G networks are capable of achieving peak download speeds of one gigabit per second, though in practice it's never that fast. With 5G, this would increase to 10Gbps.
  • Ultra-low latency: "Latency" refers to the time it takes one device to send a packet of data to another device. Currently with 4G, the latency rate is around 50 milliseconds, but 5G will reduce that to about one millisecond. This will be particularly important for industrial applications and driverless cars.

Read MoreApple Watch 'killer' to 5G: What to watch out for at MWC

  • A more "connected world": The Internet of Things (wearables, smart home appliances, connected cars) is expected to grow exponentially over the next 10 years, and it will need a network that can accommodate billions of connected devices. Part of the goal behind 5G is to provide that capacity, and also to be able to assign bandwidth depending on the needs of the application and user.

What will 5G allow me to do that I can't right now with 4G?

To provide a little more context around how much faster 5G speeds will be compared to 4G, let's go back to the video example I mentioned at the beginning. According to Huawei, 5G will allow you to download an eight gigabyte HD movie in six seconds versus the seven minutes it would take over 4G or more than an hour on 3G.

But 5G is much more than just faster data speeds on your mobile devices. It also opens the door to a lot of different consumer and industrial applications and uses — some of which seem unbelievable now because they're so futuristic.

For example, Ulrich Dropmann, head of industry environment networks at Nokia, gave a scenario where you might be cruising in your driverless car when, unbeknownst to you, a crash has just occurred up the road. With 5G, sensors placed along the road would be able to instantly relay that information back to your car (this is where having low latency is important), so it could brake earlier and avoid another accident.

At MWC, Ericsson showed how 5G could be used to control heavy machinery from a remote location. Inside the booth, attendees strapped on an Oculus Rift headset and were able to remotely control one of two real diggers to move dirt either outside the conference hall or one thousands of miles away in Sweden. My Re/code colleague Ina Fried tried it out, and it worked!

What are the challenges facing 5G?

One of the big challenges facing 5G is standardization. There are already multiple groups working to come up with standards around interoperability, backward compatibility with older technologies (4G, 3G), and making sure the network will be future-proof. While many companies agree that a global standard is needed, whether they'll be able to come together and agree on one is another story.

Read MoreMobile industry tiptoes towards 5G

Building the infrastructure for 5G is also a huge task, with issues around spectrum and installing new antennas. 5G is likely going to rely, at least in part, on higher-frequency bands. There is more space in those airwaves available, but at such high frequencies, signals can't travel nearly as far as they can over the frequencies used for 4G, resulting in a poor connection.

Obstacles like buildings and trees and even bad weather can also cause interference, according to Nokia's Dropmann. To offset that, carriers will need to install more base stations to ensure better coverage, and use antenna technologies like MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output).

Ina Fried has more on the long road to 5G here.

How much is 5G going to cost me?

Both Huawei and Nokia agreed that 5G can't cost too much more than what consumers are paying now for 4G; otherwise, no one's going to adopt the technology. But it's really too early to say how much 5G devices and services will cost.

When will we get 5G?

Again, it's too soon to say for sure, but don't count on it in the next couple of years. The most optimistic targets would see the first commercial network up and running by 2020, but even that may be too optimistic. As with LTE, it will take years for the network to become widespread.

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