THE next evolution of mobile connectivity is so close we can nearly taste it.
Telstra has been racing to have its 5G network up and running in 2019 as 5G-compatible smartphones become available. The telco announced this afternoon it had struck deals with a number of smartphone manufactures to bring their phones "exclusively" to its 5G network in the first half of the year.
Telstra was coy on the specifics, citing commercial sensitivity on the part of the phone makers, but chief executive officer Andy Penn said "more than one" manufacturer was on board, including "some of the big ones".
Telstra has been quietly testing its 5G network in recent months, slowly turning on sites in cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Perth. Today it has about 207 5G sites up and running.
"(Last year) was all about being network ready, and we're absolutely network ready," Mr Penn said. "The timing on the rollout of 5G is dependent on the availability of all the devices - handsets, tablets and of course into the whole world of the Internet of Things."
And the wait is nearly over.
The exclusive deals Telstra is spruiking could be based simply on the fact it will beat its rivals - Optus and Vodafone - to switching on its 5G network. Mr Penn acknowledged the smartphone deals would be finite.
The move from 4G to 5G promises data transfer at hyper speeds and low latency to unlock new applications. From enabling autonomous driving to downloading a 4K movie to our phone in a matter of seconds, there's a lot to look forward to with 5G.
It's been a major theme at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, with telcos, chip manufacturers and device makers keen to tout their progress.
Samsung has a 5G smartphone prototype on display at the event. The company used part of its press conference earlier in the week to speak about the potential of 5G and promise the launch of a compatible smartphone with the help of chip maker Qualcomm, which is instrumental in the development of new mobile hardware technology.
"If you're bringing out a 5G phone in 2020, you'll be too late," a Qualcomm exec said in a thinly veiled jab at Apple, which not expected to launch its 5G offering until next year.
Other possible candidates among those to have worked out smartphone deals with Telstra include Huawei and LG.
WILL I HAVE TO PAY MORE?
Telstra has made noises about expecting customers to pay more for 5G service but don't expect much of a price hike.
"We haven't confirmed pricing," Mr Penn said. "I can tell you what we did on 4G, which is that we didn't differentially price 4G over 3G.
"I made a comment before Christmas around customers being willing to pay more for 5G, (but) that is not me saying we will differentially price 5G."
At the same time, carriers such as Telstra have spent billions on upgrading their networks and buying up new spectrum, "so that does tend to lead to an increase in prices", he added.
THE DIGITISATION OF EVERYTHING
The arrival of commercially available 5G smartphones marks the final step in consumers being able to enjoy the benefits of the more powerful mobile connectivity, with Australians set to be among the first in the world to do so.
The jump from 2G to 3G took us beyond call and text and enabled the data consumption on smartphones we now take for granted. The move from 3G to 4G supported big increases in data allowances enabling us to do things such as streaming Netflix on the train.
At its most basic, 5G will make use of much higher frequencies for radio communications than has been used in cellular networks in the past. The result will be more bandwidth and speedier connections. With 5G, consumers will be able to enjoy super-fast downloads, high-quality streaming and gaming, and advancements in emerging trends such as augmented reality and virtual gaming.
Another important factor will be reduced latency - the slight lag in the transfer of data. That will make a critical difference in robotics and augmented reality, where shaving milliseconds is crucial. It will support such things as allowing remote heart surgery to be conducted through a robotic arm, improve live gaming in virtual reality and provide the super quick response time needed for autonomous vehicles.
The technology will also underpin a plethora of sensor-enabled devices that will do everything from tracking cargo, to measuring weather patterns and providing other smart metering applications.
This world of connected devices is known as the as the Internet of Things and the expected boon to manufacturing, mining, transport logistics, agriculture and other industries is sometimes referred to as the fourth industrial revolution by the true believers.
"I think the next 20 years will be incredible in the sense that there's been a lot of digitisation in the world but that digitisation has tended to be limited to what I would call the services layer, whereas the physical world hasn't really been digitised," Mr Penn said.
With 5G, physical assets will become increasingly digitised. It will become common for tractors, irrigation systems and even livestock to be connected to a network with sensor technology. Coupled with the maturation of technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloud computing, Telstra is optimistic about the opportunities to provide service - and more importantly "solutions" - to consumer and enterprise customers.
"As the physical world becomes infused with the digital world, you've got the connectivity to harness that data, you've got the computing capacity and power to process that data in the cloud and you've got the AI engines to actually turn them into close looped systems," Mr Penn said. "That will lead to an incredible world of automation."