Air travel is about to embark on an amazing transformation: Passengers will reach the airport without hassle, zip quickly through security, then board their planes smoothly and without fear of missed connections. Airlines will know in advance who will make a flight and how to deploy their resources efficiently. And all flights will arrive on time, weather permitting.

These improvements will be enabled in part by the deployment of 5G (fifth-generation) cellular networks. The new networks, coming in the next few years, will handle huge amounts of data at lightning-quick speeds with near-zero latency. As a result, electronic devices will respond to each other — and to humans — in the blink of an eye.

“It’s a vision, but it’s realistic,” says Jan Geldmacher, president of Sprint Business. “This will enable the airline industry to optimize all of its processes, to make flying even safer and to improve customer services.”

Many of today’s leaders in technology believe that the broad-based and disruptive shifts heralded by 5G networks will rival those ushered in by the dawn of the internet. The new capabilities will help transform a wide swath of industries — everything from transportation, energy and health care to retailing and financial services. “The world is going to change dramatically,” predicted Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure during his keynote address to the 2017 Mobile World Congress Americas in San Francisco. “Once we have these always-on, high-bandwidth, no-latency networks, it’s going to enable tremendous innovation and economic dynamism.”

At Sprint, we’re determined to be a leader of the 5G era. We plan to begin rolling out 5G services in the United States beginning in 2019 — among the first carriers to do so. Over the past decade, consumer apps on smartphones have driven technology development. With 5G, we believe business applications will drive progress. “We call this the fourth industrial revolution. Everything will be connected and all processes will be digitized,” says Geldmacher.

An Economic and Business Boom

The initial physical deployment of 5G networks alone could pack a major economic punch. A 2017 Accenture report forecasts the cellular communications industry will invest $275 billion in new networks, which will create up to 3 million jobs and add some $500 billion to the United States’ gross domestic product. Longer term, researchers expect the new 5G networks to help stimulate productivity growth to rates not seen since the 1950s.

This new wave of wireless technology stands to have such a profound impact because it’s being combined with two other technology megatrends — the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence. With IoT, sensors are being embedded in devices and structures, from power transmission equipment to football stadiums, enabling communication between devices and people and their environments. At the same time, computers and robots are being imbued with artificial intelligence, which enables the devices to make sense of the tsunami of IoT data and interact with humans in new ways. These advances are aimed at helping people live better and make better decisions. In fact, by combining these three types of technology, humans stand to gain something akin to a sixth sense — new capabilities that enable us to do things that were not possible before.

For example, imagine a cardiac surgeon in Boston, Massachusetts, performing complex surgery remotely for a patient at a rural hospital outside Boise, Idaho — as a result of 5G connectivity, health-monitoring sensors, high-definition video, AI diagnostic tools and robotics.

Or imagine a time when autonomous vehicles rule the roadways. Connectivity between vehicles and their surroundings could mean we don’t need traffic lights. Since there won’t be accidents, there won’t be ambulance chasers.

The Birth of Super-Intelligence

Masayoshi Son, the chairman of our parent Softbank, believes that the world is at a turning point similar to the one that came during the Cambrian Explosion, more than 500 million years ago. That’s when living things evolved from single-celled organisms into complex and differentiated beings with senses and intelligence. Now, thanks to 5G, IoT and AI, humans are acquiring new sensory and thinking capabilities. “At some point I am sure we will see the birth of a super-intelligence that will contribute to humanity,” Son wrote in Softbank’s 2017 annual report.

Our association with Softbank positions us well for this new era. Softbank’s network of companies combines the strength of our converged network (our fiber network combined with our advanced LTE Plus wireless network), with the leading maker of IoT sensors, and a satellite communications company that’s bringing broadband data connectivity to remote areas of the planet. We plan on collaborating with our Softbank cousins, plus other business partners, to provide leading-edge services and applications for businesses and consumers. “We’re creating business ecosystems to accelerate change,” says Geldmacher.

One of the most critical elements to this new age of technology is working with partners to develop the 5G networks themselves. Our goal is to increase top data-transmission speeds by up to 1,000 percent and to reduce the time it takes to transmit data to one millisecond, which is the time it takes a human to react when somebody unexpectedly throws a ball at them. Known as zero latency, it enables autonomous machines to interact with humans without jeopardizing each other — on city streets, for instance, or on factory floors.

These advances will also require a whole new architecture for connectivity. Today, most cellular services are provided via large cell towers located on tops of buildings and along roadways. But, in order to achieve the speeds and reliability required for next-generation services, telecommunications carriers will have to deploy a host of new “small cell” transmitters, typically the size of a football, inside and around buildings. We have already introduced MagicBox, which increases speeds for streaming videos by more than 200 percent. We have also acquired the largest amount of 2.5 GHZ radio spectrum of any cellular carrier in the United States. That’s a critical type of spectrum for delivering 5G services to businesses and consumers.

Even though full deployment of 5G networks is still a while off, now is the time for business leaders to learn about the technologies and make strategic decisions that could place them in the vanguard of the shifts that are coming. To help customers launch on this journey, we’re retooling our salesforce — hiring and re-training so our salespeople can serve as trusted advisers to clients. We’re also developing offerings that enable businesses to shift their investments in innovation from capital expenses to operating expenses. “Our people will talk less about features and functions and more about the business opportunities that these new technologies will provide,” says Geldmacher.

The evolution of living organisms during the Cambrian Explosion, as amazing as it was, took place at a glacial pace — over a period of 55 million years. The advances in technology today are coming at dizzying speeds. Only by cultivating a deep understanding of these new capabilities and their potential will organizations be able to anticipate the changes that are coming — and make the most of them.