What you really need to know about AT&T 5G

Movie downloads in seconds, lag-free streaming in 4K resolution, and an altogether snappier experience on your iPhone or Android: 5G certainly promises a lot. Like Verizon, which announced late last year it would be testing 5G in 2016, AT&T says that this is the right time to start real-world trials, even if commercial deployments are still some way off.

When does the AT&T 5G trial start?

AT&T says it plans to kick off outdoor tests over the summer, though field trials of 5G aren't planned until around the end of 2016. That'll take place in Austin, Texas, at a number of fixed locations.

Why is 5G so important?

Mainly because we're bandwidth-greedy and that's showing no sign of slowing. LTE, or 4G, continues to roll out across the US, but 5G has the potential to be exponentially faster, competing with WiFi but – once the roll-out begins in earnest – with significantly more coverage than the average public hotspot.

Meanwhile, somewhat ironically, as speeds increase networks like AT&T's will become even more appealing to new users. Currently, even LTE isn't fast enough for some mission-critical purposes – keeping self-driving cars linked to cloud-based processing for autonomy in real-time, for instance – while data-hungry services like 4K virtual reality streaming need all the bandwidth they can get if they're not going to make us queasy from lag and stutter.

Just how fast will it be?

In theory, very fast indeed. AT&T is saying anywhere between 10x and 100x faster than the average LTE speeds you see today, and though real-world performance of course won't match the possibilities on paper, we're still talking about gigabits per second, not megabits.

That, in download terms, will make a huge difference to how we use our mobile devices. A TV show could arrive on your phone in under three seconds, for instance: no longer would you need to plan ahead and load up your phone or tablet before you leave home.

There are less immediately obvious benefits to 5G, too. AT&T points out that latency will be cut compared to 4G as well, which means streaming will start faster, video calls suffer less lag, and webpages feeling more perky.

Is it all about speed?

Not entirely, no. 5G is obviously appealing because nobody likes waiting for downloads to complete, but it could have big implications on battery life too.

Because it can be more efficient in radio power use than 3G/4G, that means devices with small batteries and less speed-dependent intentions can throttle back significantly. Distributed sensor networks, for instance, might only need a tiny fraction of the bandwidth that a phone uses, but by only sipping at the network they could run for far longer than they do today: anything up to ten years on a single charge, AT&T suggests.

Will I need a new phone?

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Just as a 3G smartphone wouldn't work with a 4G network, so 5G will require a new breed of devices in order to tap into the higher speeds. Phones, tablets, and other wirelessly-connected hardware will need a 5G-compatible radio in order to take advantage of the new networks.

You probably shouldn't use that as an excuse to hold off an upgrade this year, mind. The 5G standard isn't expected to begin the process of finalization until 2018: 4G isn't going anywhere for a good while yet.