5G will be the lifeblood of the new economy.
Self-driving cars, virtual reality, smart cities and networked robots will all be powered by 5G networks someday soon. 5G promises to open the door to new surgical procedures, safer transportation and instant communication for first responders.
There's no reason to believe that will happen. A publicly financed 5G project would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It would be a moonshot unlike anything the government has taken on since it sent people to the moon.
5G is on its way whether the government backs it or not. Major internet companies are far along in their 5G network development, and the first networks will be up and running in the next couple years.
What is 5G?
Like every "next generation" wireless network technology, 5G will give your phone a speedier connection -- about 10 times faster than 4G, industry experts expect. That's enough to stream "8K" video or download a 3D movie in 30 seconds. (On 4G, it would take six minutes.)
The extra capacity will make service more reliable, allowing more gadgets to connect to the network at the same time.
But 5G is about much more than smartphones. Sensors, thermostats, cars, robots, and other new technology will all connect to 5G one day. Today's 4G networks don't have the bandwidth for the vast amounts of data all those devices will transmit.
5G networks will also reduce to virtually zero the lag time between devices and the servers they communicate with. For driverless cars, that means uninterrupted communication between a car and other vehicles, data centers and outside sensors.
To accomplish all that, 5G will need to travel over super-high-frequency airwaves. Higher frequencies bring faster speeds and more bandwidth. But they can't travel through walls, windows or rooftops, and they get considerably weaker over long distances.
That means wireless companies will need to install thousands -- perhaps millions -- of miniature cell towers on top of every lamp post, on the side of buildings, inside every home and potentially in every room.
That's why 5G will complement 4G rather than outright replace it. In buildings and in crowded areas, 5G might provide a speed boost. But when you're driving down the highway, 4G could be your only option -- at least for a while.
Who is building it?
Each of the four nationwide cell phone carriers -- Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T), T-Mobile (TMUS) and Sprint (S) -- are developing and testing 5G network technology. Chipmakers, including Qualcomm and Intel, are building processors and radios that enable 5G communications. And the major network equipment companies, including Nokia (NOK), Ericsson and Huawei, are building the backbone and equipment to support 5G.
The research and development alone is costly, but building out 5G networks will be wildly expensive -- even for an industry accustomed to spending tens of billions of dollars every year in infrastructure costs. Rolling out 5G to the entire United States will cost $300 billion, according to Barclays.
The government could spend that kind of money, but it would be getting a very late start. And it would have to contract with the network equipment and telecommunications companies, which are already building and testing their own networks anyway.
A White House official confirmed that a 5G network, as reported by Axios, is part of the administration's national security strategy. The official said the memo reported by Axios, however, is "dated" and "not representative of the administration's thinking," declining to provide further details.
Verizon and AT&T declined comment on the Axios report.
When is it coming?
The wireless industry expects 5G networks to launch in 2020.
This month, 5G cleared a significant hurdle when 3GPP, an international wireless consortium, approved a technology standard for next-generation networks. Next year, the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union is expected to review 3GPP's standard. After that, wireless companies can begin buying and selling 5G equipment with the assurance that it will all work together.
Meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T have made strides in testing 5G networks. AT&T says it will start to roll out its 5G network as early as this year, though virtually no one will be able to use it until 5G-compatible devices land on store shelves. That's unlikely to happen before 2020.