How 5G Works

A 5G sign is shown on screen during a keynote address by Qualcomm Inc. CEO Steve Mollenkopf at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In 2005, no one watched Netflix in a tent in the Rocky Mountains. It wasn't until years later that fast 4G networks around the world enabled people to stream large amount of data (like those screening of "Top Gun" or "Toy Story") in cities ... and in the middle of nowhere, right on their phones. Now, thanks to the forthcoming 5G standard, digital networks are about to get even faster.

5G is the fifth generation (thus, the "G") of mobile wireless systems, a way for devices, both mobile and stationary, to send and receive data without being plugged into a wall in your home or at the office. Typically, a new generation is named (sometimes retroactively) when it denotes a significant leap in wireless mobile technologies. 5G might enable driverless cars, delivery drones, and may even replace the WiFi in your home and office.

Before you drop everything and run off to buy a new 5G-capable smartphone, understand that 5G doesn't yet officially exist. Most Americans probably won't have access to a 5G network until around 2019 or so. But because mobile devices are big business, giant companies like Verizon, AT&T, Samsung, and Nokia, among many others, are already investing huge money in this latest wireless system [source: Reuters].

They hope to create a network that is – in theory, anyway – able to provide download speeds of about 10,000 Mbps (megabits per second) [source: Nelson]. That's roughly three times faster than current 4G networks, meaning fewer delays and even more complex and powerful smartphone apps, among many other benefits. Remember when it took 15 seconds to down a 5MB MP3 file via 3G connection? With 5G, you may be able to download an entire movie in just moments. Giddy-up!

Whether you're an early adopter or slow to adopt new technologies, there's no arguing that mobile communications are transforming modern life, and it's likely that 5G bring even more changes. Keep reading and you'll find out what 5G is and how it might speed up your already quick-paced personal and professional life.