“FASTER, higher, stronger,” goes the Olympic motto. So it is only appropriate that the next generation of wireless technology, “5G” for short, should get its first showcase at the Winter Olympics  under way in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Once fully developed, it is supposed to offer download speeds of at least 20 gigabits per second (4G manages about half that at best) and response times (“latency”) of below 1 millisecond. So the new networks will be able to transfer a high-resolution movie in two seconds and respond to requests in less than a hundredth of the time it takes to blink an eye. But 5G is not just about faster and swifter wireless connections.

The technology is meant to enable all sorts of new services. One such would offer virtual- or augmented-reality experiences. At the Olympics, for example, many contestants are being followed by 360-degree video cameras. At special venues sports fans can don virtual-reality goggles to put themselves right into the action. But 5G is also supposed to become the connective tissue for the internet of things, to link anything from smartphones to wireless sensors and industrial robots to self-driving cars. This will be made possible by a technique called “network slicing”, which allows operators quickly to create bespoke networks that give each set of devices exactly the connectivity they need.

Despite its versatility, it is not clear how quickly 5G will take off. The biggest brake will be economic. When the GSMA, an industry group, last year asked 750 telecoms bosses about the most salient impediment to delivering 5G, more than half cited the lack of a clear business case. People may want more bandwidth, but they are not willing to pay for it—an attitude even the lure of the fanciest virtual-reality applications may not change. And building 5G networks will not be cheap. Because of the higher frequencies, they will require more antennae, base stations and fibre-optic cables to connect them. 

Analysts expect that operators will roll out 5G more gradually than the previous wireless generation—and only in places where the numbers add up. Some will first use the technology to provide super-fast “fixed” wireless links between stationary antennae, which is less tricky to do. Other carriers may use 5G to get more out of the spectrum they own. Yet others will weave 5G networks to serve densely populated cities. In other words, 5G’s trajectory is likely to resemble that of 3G, which was launched in the early 2000s. It disappointed until it found its “killer application” with the smartphone, later that decade. And it was only with 4G that mobile networks actually lived up to the promises of 3G, such as being able to watch video streams. To really get 5G, people may have to wait for 6G.