One of the smartest things AT&T ever did was negotiate with Apple to be the exclusive network carrier for the iPhone when the game-changing smartphone was first launched. AT&T had four years with the most revolutionary (some would argue) piece of hardware of the 21st century all to itself. This increased not only its market position, but its cultural caché in the process. But as the top hardware technologies have become network agnostic, the quality of the network connection has risen to the forefront of consumer demands when it comes to their wireless providers. Now, the name of the wireless game is the race to 5G, and it could remake the way we access the Internet.
One of the biggest changes in the way we communicate came with the mobile phone. Eventually, it got so good, so ever-present in our lives, entire swathes of the country gave up their in-home landlines forever. And not just cord-cutters, either — huge numbers of baby boomers (and older) have ditched their home phones because they got more telemarketer calls than personal ones.
Another reason this was possible? Cable + cable internet.
When people no longer relied on the airwaves to receive 3-4 channels of TV, the advent of cable channels brought wired infrastructure across the country.
Over time, that was followed by high-speed Internet along that same backbone/last-mile of service. As devices grew faster, and the demand from device-owners for content grew more ravenous, the speeds of the wired network increased. But then, phones, laptops and tablets became our primary use cases for Internet-connected devices, and WiFi became the standard the country over.
Now, wired connections are capable of faster connections than wireless ones (at least for now, anyway). So WiFi was always about weaponizing a fast wired internet connection and making it portable within your living/working space by translating that signal to something wireless.
On the other side of the equation, it wasn’t really until modern smartphones (read: iPhones) that wireless mobile networks had to start accounting for data as opposed to just voice (not that voice isn’t data, but connecting to the internet from the palm of your hand places another layer of strain on the system). So, predictably, wireless mobile networks have been playing catchup with wired + WiFi networks for basically the entire history of the two systems. 5G, however, might be able to bridge that gap.
If 5G delivers on everything the major companies are claiming from it, it could be the end of the Internet as we know it. Instead of paying your wireless provider for phone (or LTE-enabled tablets, as it were) data access while also subscribing to cable/fiber optic internet at home, then WiFi’ing it for your local network, imagine just paying for one data provider service that handles all that. You wouldn’t have to wait for cable installation reps when you move, or reset your modem, etc.
Now, there’s no telling if 5G will truly end up being all that’s promised. The technology undergirding a lot of it struggles to penetrate buildings and the like, which would make rollout incredibly challenging. But it could be a standard for data handling that applies to both mobile as well as home internet — and at similar speeds — meaning it really could change the game for good. That’s why all the major players in this country have been racing to bring it to market first.