Why 5G might actually matter to Charlotte

Why 5G might actually matter to Charlotte
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Once again, Charlotte is celebrating its selection as a test market for a new “groundbreaking” technology — 5G.

Last week, Verizon announced that Charlotte would be in the first wave of cities being outfitted with a 5G cell network. That comes a few months after AT&T made a similar proclamation.

It sounds like marketing mumbo-jumbo. But it turns out that 5G means more than just slightly faster Instagram loading on your phone. It’s the next big step in mobile technology that will enable a new breed of unicorn startups.

Sure, everyone in the U.S. will have access to this soon enough. But Charlotte being included in the first wave of development means our city has a seat at the table in the next entrepreneurial boom. It doesn’t guarantee that Charlotte will be home to one of the next big tech companies — but it at least gives us a chance.

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Here’s what you need to know about 5G and Charlotte.

What is 5G?

At its most literal, 5G stands for the fifth generation of cellular wireless technology. Currently, most phones operate on a 4G network, so 5G is the next step up.

The 5G technology operates exponentially faster and with less lag time than 4G. Yes, you will be able to download movies faster with 5G. But that’s not really the important part.

Think of it this way: Each generation has brought major leaps forward in what we can do with our phones. The first generation introduced cell phones in the 1990s. The second generation added text messaging. 3G brought the mobile internet, and 4G allowed things like video calls to become commonplace.

5G is expected to allow major advances in autonomous vehicles and drone technology. After all, you can’t really wait for video to buffer if it’s needed to keep you from running someone over.

“This is like pre- and post-internet kind of change,” Charlotte city councilman and tech entrepreneur Tariq Bokhari told WBT. “This is truly about businesses and bots all coming together and the autonomy of the internet of things going absolutely to the next level.”

What companies use 5G?

Cellular network carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint are slowly building out 5G technology across the country to replace their current infrastructure. This involves upgrading the cell towers that our phones use today to comply with the new technology.

AT&T actually turned on 5G in 19 cities — including Charlotte — in late 2018. That’s why if you have an AT&T plan, you may have noticed “5G” pop up in the upper-right corner where the bars of service display.

Verizon announced last week that they’d chosen Charlotte to be one of 30 cities to get 5G infrastructure by the end of 2019.

However, you won’t be able to use 5G right away. You’ll need a new phone that’s built for the new technology, and that’s still a year or so away. 5G-enabled iPhones aren’t expected until 2020, or possibly 2021.

But the real leaps forward won’t occur until other companies start using the 5G technology.

Uber and Snapchat were really only made possible by the shift to 4G. We won’t know for at least a few years what new consumer brands will emerge on the back of 5G.

Why does it matter that Charlotte’s getting 5G?

It will take time — years, most likely — for 5G to become the norm around the country. These announcements guarantee that as soon as you upgrade your phone next year, you’ll be able to access the new, faster speeds.

But the bigger impact could come on the business side.

Startups working on new technology will be able to access the 5G networks before consumers switch over. If you’re not one of the cities with 5G infrastructure, you’ve got no shot at landing or growing a high-tech company.

Charlotte has a seat at that table.

Verizon is currently offering a $1 million prize for the company that can demonstrate the best use of 5G. Any Charlotte entrepreneurs want to give it a shot?

Is this going to be another disappointment like Google Fiber?

As you’re reading this, you might think it all sounds familiar. Charlotte celebrated being selected for Google Fiber, which also promised super-fast internet and transformative prospects for business.

While some homes in Charlotte are able to access Google Fiber, it hasn’t been the revolutionary technology that was promised.

5G has some key differences. First, fiber internet was always going to be a microscopic side business for a corporate giant like Google. It failed because the company wasn’t dedicated to it.

That’s not the case with 5G. This technology will become the standard for every cell phone. There’s simply no way around it. This means that the wireless carriers have no choice but to upgrade to it and support it.

It may be a few years, but 5G will change Charlotte. The bigger question: Can our budding startup ecosystem take advantage?

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