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Here's how Qualcomm wants to bring 5G to the masses

Why it matters to you

5G is the next standard for cellular connectivity -- and it could completely revolutionize how we use and connect to the internet.

We’ve heard it all before. It seems like every week there’s a new headline suggesting that the launch of 5G is imminent and that it will totally change how we use and interact with the world wide web. However, in the few years that 5G has been making headlines, we have yet to see any real, tangible progress.

That doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made, though.

While the four major U.S. carriers are the companies that will most often pop up upon searching “5G,” there’s another company that could be even more important than the rest: Qualcomm. After all, it doesn’t matter how much money Verizon and friends invest in 5G if our devices can’t connect to it — and that’s where Qualcomm’s chips will be more important than ever.

More: AT&T gets serious about 5G with the deployment of test networks in Austin and Indianapolis

According to Qualcomm, we’ve been thinking about 5G all wrong. 5G isn’t just the next wave of internet connectivity that will allow us to watch Netflix in 8K, the company argues. Rather, it’s a web of services that could encompass cellular connectivity as well as the future of Wi-Fi and a whole slew of currently unlicensed spectrums. In turn, those changes to how we use and interact with the internet could spur a revolution of connectivity, where almost everything you use and interact with in your daily life interacts with other connected devices around you.

The tech behind that extra ‘G’

Implementing such a system will be no small feat, but it could piggyback on a slew of other technologies that are already available to consumers. Reports on how 5G will replace Wi-Fi have been surfacing for quite some time, but the truth is a little less dramatic. Wi-Fi will be an important aspect of 5G, to be sure, but rather than replacing it, 5G could compliment it.

According to Qualcomm’s vision, 5G will be “one integrated system” that includes the tech used in Wi-Fi, the tech used in 4G LTE, and a new technology that will be used in the currently unlicensed spectrum. In other words, while plenty of rumors and reports have hinted at 5G living in the upper “millimeter wave” frequencies, in reality, 5G will also be delivered through low, sub-1GHz frequencies and mid frequencies of between 1GHz and 6GHz — on top of the aforementioned millimeter frequencies above 24GHz.

More: We may not need 5G Speeds by 2020: Here’s Why

That’s not to say that millimeter wave tech isn’t an important aspect of 5G and how it works — just that millimeter waves aren’t the whole 5G picture. Still, Qualcomm anticipates that frequencies of 24GHz and above, which is what we define as millimeter wave, will play an important role in the future of speedy connectivity. However, it will require the deployment of a new wave of technology, both from carriers and from device manufacturers. That’s where 5G NR or 5G New Radio comes in.

The Netgear Nighthawk M1 — The first Gigabit LTE device

5G NR is essentially the name given to the new technology that will be needed to implement a new wave of super high-speed data connections. This “new radio” will utilize a wide range of spectrum, including mid bands from 1GHz to 6GHz and the much higher “millimeter waves.” While the tech is still in its early stages, part of Qualcomm’s new 5G related announcements include that the company has successfully tested its first 5G NR connections in the mid-band spectrums — so it’s well on its way to becoming reality.

Then there’s the other end of things: the tech in your smartphone, which, as you might expect, Qualcomm also wants to play a big part in. The company even announced the Snapdragon X50 last year — the world’s first 5G modem — which Qualcomm says is capable of download speeds of up to 5Gbps and will be available at some point in 2018.

Don’t forget about LTE

5G isn’t going to replace 4G LTE. After all, when you don’t have access to a 5G network, you’ll still want to achieve reasonably quick data speeds — and as such, it’s quite likely that we’ll continue to see faster and faster LTE networks. In fact, Qualcomm thinks we’ll be able to hit Gigabit-per-second data speeds for LTE; speeds that we previously thought would be limited to 5G.

Gigabit LTE comes with its own technical challenges, which can be overcome by Qualcomm’s new X20 modem … at least in part. In fact, some networks already offer Gigabit LTE — namely Telstra, an Australian carrier that began offering the new speeds late last year. It’s expected that most carriers will begin launching Gigabit LTE when enough smartphones have the X20 modem.

It’s no coincidence that Qualcomm is keeping at least some of its focus on LTE. The high-speed standard could play a huge role in the massive expected uptick in IoT device set to ship over the next few years. Qualcomm is expecting to see an IoT boom and has even announced its first LTE-capable IoT chip, the Snapdragon 210.

So 5G is fast — what’s the point?

V2X Communication

5G isn’t just about faster speeds; it’s about enabling new technologies and a more connected world. A big part of this will actually be something you may not have thought of — what come companies are calling “mission-critical services.” That includes things like medical devices, smart cities, and even connected cars.

We’re not talking about cars that are essentially a mobile hotspot, but rather, connected cars that can talk to each other, something that could save millions of lives. This development goes hand-in-hand with the self-driving car revolution. Cars could, as Qualcomm explains, alert others behind it of a blockage on the road, or alert cars of an action that they need to take — something that could prevent thousands of accidents every year.

More: BMW smart car becomes a temporary holding cell for thief who allegedly stole it

While vehicle-to-vehicle technology, called V2V, is a big deal, vehicle-to-everything else, or V2X technology could be equally as important. Cars could communicate with road signs, or with drones, or with our phones — all in the name safety and convenience.

Unsurprisingly, the internet of things is also a huge part of 5G. Qualcomm estimates that there will be a whopping $12 trillion in 5G-related goods and services in 2035. In other words, everything we own will eventually get connected, and all those connected devices would put a huge strain on our current networks and services. Faster networks don’t just mean we’ll be able to watch higher quality video, it means we’ll be able to connect more things to our networks without any significant strain on data speeds.

The end game

5G is on its way, but it won’t be the last “G” we talk about. There really is no end to what we can do with higher data speeds and better network capabilities.

For now, our focus is on 5G, which is expected to begin the very early stages of rolling out in 2018. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ll be using it then. Carriers will take time to roll out their own 5G offerings, and it will be a while before our smartphones and connected devices support the new technology. By most estimates, 5G should become more commonplace in the early 2020s.

Then we’ll start thinking about 6G.