An illustration of a hand holding a smartphone.

The prospect of 5G, a superfast and secure new wireless network, has a lot of people excited. And after years of buzz, consumers are getting their first real glimpse of the technology.

According to telecommunications experts, 5G speeds will allow users to download a movie in just 5 seconds. They’ll also pave the way for the instantaneous response times required to safely perform robotic surgery and operate self-driving cars.

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But beyond the arrival of a few compatible, high-priced smartphones, it’s still unclear exactly what 5G will look like in 2019—not to mention how useful it will be to the average person in the year ahead.

That hasn’t stopped zealous marketers from latching on to the term, though, even using it to promote products that are clearly not 5G.

Case in point: AT&T continues to be criticized for changing an indicator on some phones receiving its service to “5G E.” AT&T says the change is meant to indicate that the phones are receiving potentially faster “5G Evolution” technology ahead of the rollout of standards-based 5G service later this year. But rival Verizon bristled at the move and called on the industry to avoid the temptation to “over-hype and under-deliver on the 5G promise.” 

So what’s real and what’s hype? Here’s what you need to know.

What Is 5G, and How Fast Is It?

Proponents of 5G describe it as a cloud of connectivity that could follow you when you leave your home, allowing for simple conveniences, such as seamless music streaming, as well as vastly more complicated and high-stakes applications, like driverless cars and smart cities.

Every 10 years or so, the telecommunications industry runs out of ways to stretch the capabilities of the existing wireless technology, so developers start designing a new system—labeled with a “G”—from the ground up. And that’s what’s happening now.

All four of the major U.S. telecom carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—have 5G-related projects in the works. And the first 5G smartphones are just now hitting the market.

In addition to making mobile connectivity faster and more efficient, as previous generations have done, 5G could reduce the clutter of the wired connections most homes and businesses run on. In this vision of the future, instead of getting internet service from a cable coming out of a living room wall, you would get it from a router with an antenna equipped to receive a wireless signal from your service provider.

And despite the lack of a wired connection, the internet speeds would be a lot faster. When 5G launches, initial peak speeds are expected to be about five times faster than those of 4G (or LTE) connections, which right now can reach up to 1 gigabit per second.

But don’t get too excited. Just like today’s peak speeds, those of 5G will be just that: peaks. They’d require perfect conditions and be more of an exception than the norm.

At least at first, 5G connectivity, and the devices that can use it, will be a premium feature, says Ignacio Contreras, director of 5G marketing for Qualcomm. But what that will do for everyone is ease the current burden on 4G networks, letting them work faster and more efficiently.

In addition, 5G could allow telecommunications providers to use new parts of the wireless spectrum, boosting capacity at a time when the current options are stretched to their limits.

And down the road, 5G has the potential to spark even more profound change. It could significantly reduce latency—the speed at which a packet of data travels between two devices—from about 50 milliseconds to 1.

That’s a crucial development for driverless cars, smart cities, and other applications that require immediate reactions, says Jason Leigh, senior research analyst for mobility at the research firm IDC.

“It’s a fascinating technology if you think less about how it’ll affect the use of your mobile device and more about all of the other things it can do,” he says.

What to Expect in the Year Ahead

Life as we know it will not be transformed right away.

Yes, you can now find 5G phones in stores. In April, Motorola became the first manufacturer to get a device into the hands of American consumers, but that phone was last year’s Moto Z3—with an attachment that makes it 5G-compatible. The Moto Z4, coming in June, will also work with the 5G Mod.

The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which features the hardware needed for a network connection as well as a larger display and new cameras, officially reached stores earlier this month.

The Sprint-exclusive LG V50 ThinQ arrived in stores on Friday. And at least one other 5G-compatible device from Samsung is expected to go on sale before the end of this year.

But those phones won’t be as impressive as promised if there’s no comprehensive network to support them, Leigh says, noting that 5G connectivity is likely to be very patchy at first because the new network requires new towers.

“Covering an entire city isn’t economically or logistically feasible,” he says. “Even in an urban area, you’re going to only have service in pockets.”

All four of the major U.S. carriers are working on getting their 5G networks off the ground. On Thursday, Sprint officially turned on its network in parts of four major U.S. cities. It joins Verizon, which launched its 5G service in April. But that network is confined to a few neighborhoods in Minneapolis and Chicago. 

That could make early 5G-enabled handsets, most of which come with premium prices, a tough sell for most consumers.

Leigh is confident that 5G will ultimately be a crucial factor in smart cities, factory automation, telemedicine, and other innovations, but leaps like those are still years away.