The Arrival of 5G Will Revolutionize Games the Way 4G Changed Video Streaming

xizeng lu/Getty
xizeng lu/Getty

5G is going to make your cellphone much faster, and that's going to change gaming dramatically. 4G, adopted 10 years ago, is shorthand for "fourth generation" mobile technology. It exponentially increased the amount of data sent to your phone and made it possible to stream high-quality video. 4G tech put a DVD player in your pocket; 5G is going to put a PlayStation there too.

"In five to 10 years, a game-streaming company will be as prevalent as Netflix," Shivendra Panwar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the New York State Center for Advanced Technology in Telecommunications at New York University, tells Newsweek. Total game sales around the world were estimated to have been $138 billion in 2018.

Panwar says companies like Netflix took off because of wireless consumption of their videos, first via home Wi-Fi and then on phones following the arrival of 4G. But the change didn't happen fast. "In the early years, video-streaming quality wasn't great, and it was not available everywhere," he says.

5G data speeds can be up to 20 times faster than 4G, allowing download speeds of 20 gigabytes per second. But first network operators will have to finish upgrading their equipment and phone manufacturers will have to roll out devices that can handle the greater speed and volume of data. 5G networks have already been launched in test markets in South Korea, China, Japan and the U.S. Samsung is launching its first 5G-enabled phone, the Galaxy S10 5G, on May 14.

If 5G works as advertised, it will eliminate the need for big game consoles. Instead of using a $300 system, you will be able to play games on your phone, computer or TV while a cloud server does all the processing. The experience should be indistinguishable from having a game console in the room with you, which is bad news for companies, like Nintendo, that manufacture game hardware.

But Panwar says, "Cloud-based gaming is something people are skeptical about because, like with 4G and then with 5G, it won't be available everywhere, or there won't be good data plans."

One big unresolved technical challenge facing cloud gaming via 5G is latency—that is, the time it takes a cloud server to recognize which buttons the user just pressed. A noticeable lag can make gaming impossible when reaction time is measured in milliseconds. Even today's Wi-Fi isn't reliable enough for professional gamers, who still connect their equipment with physical Ethernet cables for tournament play. Panwar, who researches latency, says a key to eliminating it is upgrading transmission control protocols. TCPs are the software that allows a computer or phone to manage the torrent of data it receives from a wireless network.

"Imagine the data is going through a water pipe between your device and the network," Panwar explains. "The TCP must estimate the length of the pipe, the diameter and the location. And it's changing constantly," he says adding, "TCPs that will support game streaming are not yet tuned to optimize for low latency, though there has been some progress recently."

Meanwhile, major players in tech and gaming are jockeying to become the Netflix of gaming in the post-5G world. Sony and Microsoft already have digital-only subscription services for their consoles. The lead, however, currently belongs to Google.

Google Stadia, announced in March, is the first game-streaming service that's based solely on cloud server computing. Stadia will be a subscription service like Netflix (no price has been announced) that will enable you to play the latest games in ultra-high resolution on any device that supports a Google Chrome browser or Stadia app.

No new hardware is required, and Google says its cloud servers provide vastly more processing power than home consoles and PCs do. In theory, that means Stadia will deliver a better game experience on your phone than even the best consoles. And because Stadia uses the cloud, developers will be able to design more complex games without having to squeeze them onto home hardware.

But Stadia will also give Google access to your data. "A big advantage for game-streaming applications like Stadia is it allows for collection of real-time data on gamer behavior and preferences," Panwar says. A Google spokesman told Newsweek that Stadia "will be aligned with Google policies seen on our other offerings." The company collects user data on services like YouTube and Google Maps. Stadia can run on 5G or Wi-Fi, but some Wi-Fi setups may not be able to handle streaming a high-quality game.

It's clear there is a huge potential audience in 5G streaming. What's less obvious is who will dominate the market.

"I can't predict whether Google will get it right or if some other competitor will," Panwar says.