In the simplest possible definition, 5G is the fifth generation of cellular networking. It’s the next step in mobile technology, what the phones and tablets of the future will use for data, and it should make our current LTE networks as slow and irrelevant as 3G data seems now.
To recap, the first generation of mobile networks (retroactively referred to as 1G) came out in around 1982. It was a fully analog system until the launch of 2G (second generation networks), which made the jump to digital when it launched in 1991. 2G also added cellular data in the forms of GPRS and EDGE technologies. Roughly 10 years later, 3G networks launched, offering an even faster data rate than 2G. Around 10 years after that, our current LTE networks — what we call 4G, although there’s some contention on what that really means — is the fourth generation of networking. Historically, that works out to a new generation of networking technology every decade or so. 5G networks will presumably offer a similar leap forward when it comes to things like data speed.
Working off that model, in the best case scenario, we could see commercial 5G phones in the early 2020s, assuming the same “every 10 years” pattern as previous generations holds through. LTE began to roll out (at least in the United States) in around 2010–2011, so some simple math shows that we should expect to see 5G in 2021, which is coming up quick. Chances are, we’ll see some earlier deployments even sooner than that, if the network providers, modem manufacturers, and wireless carriers are able to live up to their early projected roadmaps. Like the jump from 3G to LTE, you will need a compatible phone to take advantage of 5G when it does roll around, but you’ve still got a few years to figure that out — obviously, we’re not expecting to see any 5G phones launching at MWC this year.
The most important thing to know about 5G is that there is no official “5G” yet. No matter what we hear at MWC this year, no matter how fast the speed test demos, or how different the networking technologies that companies use are, 5G is still a glimmer of an idea in the distance.