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What is 5G, and do you need it?

The answer will depend on how "connected" you want to be.

ST. LOUIS — Crystal clear phone calls, a wi-fi free smart home, HD video chat. That's not the future, it's the fifth generation, 5G, and it's here.

“It’s like a language that we're using to send data from a phone to a base station and vice versa,” explained Washington University professor Neal Patwari. “And that language is changing, and it will allow you to send more bits faster.”

The standard since 2009 has been 4G. Touted by wireless providers for years, 5G is the set of standards engineers and computer scientists have determined will keep the increasingly tech-dependent world running, using base stations on cell towers across the country.

“Hopefully, on average, your connection speed should be higher,” said Patwari. He explains this 5G technology is expected to be particularly useful in “the internet of things,” which can mean anything from driverless cars, to robotic surgery, to appliances already in your house.

“For example, my thermostat, I can connect it to my Wi-Fi, but in 5G, you'll have the option of connecting it to the cell company and getting the data that way,” said Patwari. “So even if your Wi-Fi goes out at home, that smart thermostat would still be connected.”

The switch to 5G isn't just flipping a switch at all: devices have to be built for the technology. A smartphone, for example, needs to be 5G enabled. Your connection will also depend on where you are: that’s why it’s important to check out coverage maps for major providers like AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon to see the service speed in areas you’ll need it most.

“The service providers have some room to do some marketing on their own, right? And so they're going to say, ‘we have 5G,’ and they may not have a full coverage of St. Louis in 5G right now,” said Patwari.

Consumer Reports tech editor Bree Fowler says you could get an upgrade thanks to 5G, without actually upgrading a thing.

"Even if you don't have a 5G phone, you're still going to reap some benefits from those 5g networks because they're going to free up space on 4G networks for you,” she said. “It's like building a big, new superhighway. even if you still use the local roads, you're going to benefit from less traffic.”

It's important to note: theories that 5G's rollout is tied to the coronavirus pandemic have been widely debunked.

Engineers are already beginning work on 6G technology, but the differences it’ll make are to be determined.

“What will we want in the future? I don't know,” said Patwari. “Your guess is probably as good as mine at this point.”

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