The next revolution in mobile technology has arrived in Bakersfield — but it's probably not time to celebrate just yet.
Earlier this month, AT&T announced its local launch of the highly anticipated wireless coverage known as 5G, joining T-Mobile, which introduced a similar service in early December. (Sprint and Verizon have not yet made the service available in Bakersfield.)
The launches mean people with the right kind of cellphone and the right mobile service plan should be able to receive data faster — perhaps 20 percent faster than they did under the previous best technology, known as 4G LTE.
But that's still a far cry from the giant technological leap 5G is expected to offer users within the next few years, when download speeds are supposed to be 100 times faster than most of today's cellphones.
"It'll still be a while before it actually rolls out to the public like 5G is intended to," said Steven Saldana, technician and sales manager at JJ Wireless at 2200 Panama Lane. "I think it's still way too early to be talking about 5G."
As wireless technology specialists see it, both local 5G service launches represent a modest first step that will be followed by many incremental improvements. Even the earliest of adopters might not see major improvement for two to three years.
They say that ultimately, a movie that now takes 10 minutes to download on a phone will be ready in seconds. Video calls will be of the highest visual quality with no delays. Texting and most file transfers will be essentially instantaneous.
But that's just the start. People in the business say 5G will change entire industries, including farming. It will pave the way for self-driving vehicles, give students immersive educational experiences and allow surgeons to perform procedures on patients in other states.
The same technology is also expected to extend cellphones' battery life.
There are significant limitations, however, and they won't be resolved soon.
5G-ready cellphones are expected to cost hundreds of dollars more than most phones do now. Wireless service carriers still have major investments to make in infrastructure across the country.
The very best service, utilizing a part of the electromagnetic spectrum cellphones today don't use, will work only in very close proximity to cellular antennas. And even then, incoming data signals won't be able to pass through walls, meaning there will have to be antennas almost everywhere.
All of this puts a premium on investment by wireless carriers, because the first to offer the speediest service with the largest capacity for moving data will win customers.
In that regard, last week's news that a judge has approved T-Mobile's $26.5 billion acquisition of rival Sprint could be significant. The merger is expected to combine the two companies' budgets for investing in 5G infrastructure.
AT&T, for its part, said the 5G coverage it launched Feb. 3 in Bakersfield works as much as two times faster than standard 4G LTE. It expects to deliver super-fast but limited-reach "5G+" in coming years.
Eventually, cellphones are expected to use all the different 5G variations, with speeds and data-handling capacity fluctuating according to the kind of signal available locally.
In the meantime, the name 5G will be used to impress consumers without offering the tremendous benefits that lie ahead, asserted J. Sharpe Smith, a wireless industry journalist based in Des Moines, Iowa.
"They're all saying that they have 5G, but really, the impact of it so far is very early adopter stage," said.
As its name suggests, 5G is the fifth generation of cellular communications technology. Like previous generations, its rollout will not immediately make earlier technology — 3G and 4G — moot, and in fact, those two wireless standards will continue to operate in cities where 5G capability exists.
There's an expectation that 5G will spark new cellphone apps, even launch whole new companies and new ways of doing business.
One example with local relevance is aerial imagery for growers of specialty crops like almonds and table grapes.
Oakland-based Ceres Imaging expects to use 5G technology to give its customers mobile coverage in fields where they can't get it now — at the highest resolution imaginable.
"While our technology pinpoints issues at a plant level, our customers often struggle with reception while walking fields," Marketing Vice President John Bourne said by email.
Regarding consumer use, 5G enthusiasts talk about the technology offering a new user experience.
Anand Gandhi, a 25-year telecomm veteran working as chief technology officer at New Jersey-based wireless innovation company Squan, described 5G in terms of running out of milk.
In a 5G world, he said by email, your refrigerator will make sure you receive an alert that you're out of milk just as you're leaving work. Your vehicle will take you to a grocery store, which will have received the milk order ahead of time.
"This will all be handled without any action on your part," Gandhi said.
He estimated that about 10 percent of U.S. cellphones will be upgraded to 5G by the end of this year. By 2023, he said, about 55 percent are expected to be 5G-ready.
Atlanta-based wireless telecomm analyst Jeff Kagan said it's not going to be particularly important which wireless carrier a consumer chooses because all of them will eventually offer the service. If you like your service provider, he said, "stick with it."
He also said the changes ahead will be breathtaking.
"It's exciting," he said. "It's going to transform our lives."
Editor's note: This story has been changed to distinguish what type of 5G service AT&T introduced locally earlier this month.