This week, we got a look at what's coming for 5G, the ultra-fast wireless standard that carriers have slowly started rolling out across the country. Many of the carriers and technology companies involved in building 5G networks and devices were at the Mobile World Congress in Los Angeles, unveiling the latest news about how 5G is going to change our lives.

Of course, before it can change lives, it has to actually find a life of its own. The problem is that the fastest 5G uses millimeter-wave technology that travels only a few city blocks at most, while a 4G LTE tower can reach many miles. The result is that ultra-fast 5G requires a far greater number of cellular towers, placed much closer together. Creating that infrastructure takes time.

There is another, slower form of 5G that will likely see a wider roll out much sooner because it uses mid-band wave technology that reaches farther, but isn't capable of the fastest speeds because it is less dense than millimeter-wave. Adding a layer of complication, these two technologies require different antennas, which means that not all 5G devices will be capable of both speeds.

Not Just for Smartphones

However, everyone thinks about 5G as being about smartphones, and while manufacturers have started rolling out versions of their flagship devices that include the antennas, it's nothing compared with the impact 5G could have on other industries. While an iPhone with blazing fast download speeds would be great, the reality is that your smartphone is probably the least important technology that will benefit from ultra-fast wireless data.

Think about it--who cares if you can stream 8K video when the 5.5-inch screen on your device is nowhere near capable of that resolution? On the other hand, any application that requires large amounts of data or information is going to benefit from the ability to send that info in near real-time. 

Medicine

There are two factors that make health care a prime candidate for transformation with 5G. The first is the massive amount of data related to delivering health care in a physician's office or hospital. The second is the density of people trying to access and work with that data at the same time. Both of those factors are limited by speed and bandwidth, and both are improved by 5G. 

As a result, 5G opens up possibilities, especially related to remote care for families who live in areas that don't have easy access to medical care. In fact, one of the holy-grail applications of ultra-fast wireless capabilities is remote surgery, allowing surgeons to operate on patients located hundreds of miles away by controlling robots remotely.

Manufacturing

Since 5G wireless technology can be laid over existing infrastructure, it doesn't require the same investment that will be needed to upgrade current factories to fiber-optic broadband. This means that companies that specialize in on-demand manufacturing can take advantage of real-time transfer and processing of the large amount of data that comes from designing, engineering, manufacturing, and quality-testing new products.

It also has huge potential for streamlining and better managing your supply chain by allowing you to connect your transportation network to the cloud with real-time analysis. That's especially helpful for mission-critical and sensitive items that require monitoring or tracking throughout the supply chain.

Autonomous Vehicles

Keeping vehicles moving in the right direction without running into each other is hard enough when there are humans behind the wheel. Remove the humans from the equation, and now a computer is faced with factoring thousands of data points and making decisions quickly. All of that requires the ability to collect, organize, and process a lot of information. 5G means that autonomous vehicles will be able to do that fast enough to better prevent accidents.

Cloud Computing

When you consider the ability to run business processes in the cloud, the computing power is almost limitless. The problem is transferring massive amounts of data to and from the cloud, especially in applications that don't have access to fiber-optic connections. 5G could allow all kinds of cloud-based applications to run anywhere, including on your smartphone.

Think about applications that are now limited by the computing power of a smartphone, but could easily take advantage of moving that data to the cloud and back instantly. 

Entertainment

The reality is that while streaming Netflix or any of the other upcoming video services doesn't require 5G speeds, there are plenty of other applications that might. Gaming, for example, is far more data-intensive and will benefit from the additional speeds and bandwidth. 5G also opens new possibilities for virtual reality and augmented reality, especially when you think about realistic gaming experiences, or the ability to provide contextual information about what your device sees. 

Finally, if 5G is truly as fast as promised when it finally arrives for the majority of Americans, it will provide a new option for home-based wireless broadband service. This will make it possible for all of your smart home devices to connect without running wires, and allow you to have an ultra-fast home internet without having to deal with the cable companies.

I don't know about you, but if that's the case, sign me up.

Published on: Oct 25, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.