GUANGZHOU, CHINA - APRIL 15: (CHINA OUT) Surgeons operate a da Vinci Surgical robot to remove the tumor at the First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-sen University on April 15, 2015 in Guangzhou, Guangdong province of China. Intuitive Surgical Inc. is an American corporation that manufactures robotic surgical systems, most notably the da Vinci Surgical System. The da Vinci Surgical System allows surgery to be performed using robotic manipulators. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
Remote control: surgeons in China use a robot to remove a tumour from a patient

What has been your experience of wireless internet? I would guess you rate WiFi as “sometimes OK” and mobile data as “OK-ish”.

Wireless services are, however, about to improve radically, according to engineers I have been speaking to. And the difference between the service you get now and that of the near-future may seem like the gulf between a 1975 Austin Allegro and a new Lexus.

Such are the game-changing claims for superfast, super wideband wireless that some in telecoms are saying that 5G could be one of the most important developments in human history. And it is coming soon, with limited rollout by 2020.

At the Winter Olympics in South Korea this month, KT Corporation and Intel will showcase the technology. High-definition pictures and virtual reality from the games in Pyeongchang will be streamed by 5G from multiple cameras, allowing viewers on some TV channels (Eurosport in Europe and the US’s NBC among them) to select the angle they watch. The bandwidth of the system means that up to 250,000 attendees in one venue will be able to stream content and transmit their own video, using their phones and tablets.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, I met Asha Keddy, Intel’s 5G lead. Intel and rival Qualcomm had adjoining exhibits demonstrating 5G. Ms Keddy told me that she had had her doubts that 5G — which partly uses frequencies with characteristics that are more like light than radio waves — would even work.

“When it actually did work, it was like, wow,” she said. “For us, seeing it work was like putting people on the moon.” Engineers had been concerned that 5G’s light-like quality might mean that rain, for example, could interfere with signals.

But any salesperson knows that consumer benefits are more compelling than a product’s features, and she moved on swiftly to outline some things that will change in a 5G world. For example, virtual reality headsets, which have so far not caught on with consumers, will flourish because of 5G. It will mean they can work untethered by wires and be free of debilitating motion sickness because latency — what we would call delay — reduces to almost zero with 5G.

Self-driving cars will not just see and avoid each other, but communicate with one another in 5G data streams. “That will be the end of red-light, green-light traffic junctions,” Ms Keddy said. In her description, vehicles will stream across a junction in both directions in a synchronised ballet. If this works, it would mean an end to traffic problems in cities.

“Or take hospital beds,” Ms Keddy continued. “They’re expensive, and in hospitals you can get other diseases. But we all have a bed at home. So why not use the technology to get all hospital services at home?

“It’s also going to be a great equaliser. Your IQ may be much higher than mine but with all the data and technology 5G gives me, what advantage do you have? This could commoditise intelligence.

“All these kinds of things become possible because we’re looking at a fully mobile, intelligent, 100 per cent connected society. And these technologies are going to overlay on each other, so who knows what’s going to come out of it?

“I’m actually not smart enough to comprehend the societal impact. Virginia Woolf talked about a day when ‘human character’ changed. The impact of this could be humanity fundamentally evolving.”

In case this level of visionary enthusiasm was, perhaps, anomalous, I also talked to a leading British 5G expert, Adrian Braine. Mr Braine works on 5G with Surrey university and runs an experimental indoor 5G set-up in nearby Basingstoke.

He describes a world not far off in which one 5G stream, delivered ubiquitously and without limits, will carry everything we need — from home internet to TV to voice calls to business data — and all secured better than today’s WiFi. The truculent home WiFi router should become a thing of the past.

“It’s a huge shift. I think 5G is at least as significant and potentially more so than the internet. It will touch all our lives because everything is going to be connected through 5G,” Mr Braine said.

Virginia Woolf...English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941). (Photo by George C Beresford/Getty Images)
Virginia Woolf, the English novelist © Getty

Mobile operators are already discussing how they are going to charge for this blanket coverage. “The existing business models aren’t going to survive 5G,” Mr Braine warns. He suggests that the demand for total coverage may require operators to co-operate more, and perhaps that we will pay some centralised entity for coverage, which will then divide up the payments.

And by 2020, 50bn connected devices globally — a figure from Cisco — will be chattering to one another in the background over 5G, dealing with small, low-data applications. Your washing machine, for example, will order itself a service.

Then, Mr Braine said, there are prospects like “the tactile internet”.

“With 5G, you could have a surgeon with a patient in another country, the surgeon controlling remotely a robot and getting the exact haptic feedback in real time he would get if he were operating on a patient in front of him.”

There is little doubt that always-on total communication, with lashings of artificial intelligence on the side, will raise as many problems for humankind as it solves. I mention the most glaring issue, privacy, to Mr Braine.

“Of course,” he replied. “But people should remember, all these things will still have an off switch.”

jonathan.margolis@ft.com

@TheFutureCritic

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