In today’s increasingly connected world, watches, fridges, drones, cars and even dog collars are coming online, transmitting vast amounts of data.

Until now, 4G has had to shoulder the load.

With 20.8 billion devices expected to be connected to the internet by 2020, a new generation of wireless technology is needed -- and that’s where 5G comes in.

“But 5G is about much more than just smartphones,” Rob Topol, general manager of 5G technologies at Intel, told Abacus. “As we rely more and more on wireless around us -- whether it is the handset in our pocket, our cars, home network, wearables or sensors in a smart city grid -- all of these things are connected.”

Simply put, 5G is the name for the fifth-generation of wireless technology. It promises far greater speeds and coverage than 4G (i.e. downloading a full HD movie in a matter of seconds), while helping deliver on the futuristic promises of driverless cars and smart cities.

However, this isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. 5G is extremely complex and expensive to roll out.

Billions of devices

Like all “next-gen” wireless technology, 5G will enable faster internet speeds. The challenge with designing advancements such as 5G, insiders say, is that they must keep up with not only how we use technology today, but also how we are going to use it for the next decade or more.

This goes beyond simply viewing clips on YouTube without having to wait for the video to load. 5G will also be used for streaming the large amounts of data required for self-driving cars, and even in performing surgeries remotely.

It will also handle the ever-growing number of devices that must communicate with each other. This is known as the internet of things (IoT), and it refers to the increasing connectedness of devices that we use in our day-to-day lives -- including lamps, coffee machines and televisions.

“The most exciting thing is that the capabilities of 5G will enable a whole new paradigm of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications using cellular networks,” said Dr Beeshanga Abewardana Jayawickrama, an electronics and telecommunications expert at the University of Technology Sydney.

This will allow your autonomous car to communicate with the sensors at a traffic light, or on a highway, thanks to the improvements that 5G promises in reducing the latency of these devices in communicating with each other.

“As the car is driving, instead of having to go to the cloud to gather information about maps or traffic, it can just go and speak to the infrastructure around it,” Intel’s Topol added. “Maybe the lamp post knows what the traffic is like ahead, because of the other cars that have passed before it.”

Laying the foundation

It might, then, surprise consumers to learn that the technical standards behind 5G are still being worked out.

In fact, the “first real 5G specification” was just agreed upon in December 2017 -- laying the technical foundations and specifications for further development.

Those in the industry stress that it’s still a work in progress, as the technology is developed. “There are [still] uncertainties,” Dr Jayawickrama said.

Part of the challenge involves the technical side.

As with any new technology -- especially one that connects billions of people across the world -- 5G’s development is complex. Carriers must build the physical networks (which will cost up to US$300 billion to roll out in the US alone, according to British bank Barclays), chip makers have to develop integrated circuits, and smartphone makers have to build 5G-compatible devices.

Then there’s the politics to consider.

Both China are the US are keen on gaining the upper hand. This was reportedly behind the Trump administration looking to build a government-funded 5G network, according to Axios.

‘1000x as fast as 4G’

Despite these challenges, the vision for 5G has been set, and major internet companies say they have made lengthy strides in developing their next-generation networks.

They’re building upon the current 4G LTE setup that offers speeds of up to a gigabit a second. LTE, which stands for long-term evolution, refers to one of the two main 4G network standards. The other being WiMax.

The best-case scenario is that 5G could “be 1,000 times as fast as 4G,” Dr Jayawickrama said. This means 5G could, in theory, exceed 10 gigabytes per second. (Here’s hoping cellular data plans increase, and get a lot cheaper.)

But despite those lofty aspirations, it’s unlikely that consumers will see those speeds during their everyday data usage. A recent simulation, showing what 5G might provide, resulted in speeds of 490 Mbps for the average 5G user.

To put that simply: fast enough to download a 3D movie in 30 seconds, compared with about six minutes on 4G.

What’s more, 5G trials are already taking place.

US carriers such as T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are already vowing to begin rolling out 5G networks in 2018 and 2019.

Meanwhile, Chinese telecommunications company Huawei recently unveiled an urban trial of 5G wireless-to-the-home (WTTH) services in Vancouver, in partnership with Canadian carrier Telus.

Those industry giants aren’t alone. As of September, 81 mobile-network operators in 42 countries and territories had demonstrated, or were testing, 5G technologies, according to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association.

Closer than you think

The major message from internet companies and smartphone makers is clear: 5G is on its way.

“Twelve to 18 months,” Intel’s Topol predicted in March 2018. “2019 will be a transition year. And by 2020, that’s when you’ll start to see 5G proliferate pretty quickly.”

Now that the first standard has been agreed upon, it falls on internet providers and hardware companies to develop the infrastructure.

And it seems that many are already well on track.

Huawei recently revealed plans to launch a 5G smartphone in the second half of this year, while Intel has announced a partnership with Microsoft, Lenovo, HP and Dell to create 5G-enabled laptops.

Until the network is in place, though, those are still just pipe dreams.