5G and face tracking: The weird future of VR headsets like Oculus Quest and HoloLens

This article originally appeared on CNET by Scott Stein.

VR headsets take you places and AR headsets show you things in the real world that aren’t really there. The next step is likely to be a wave of camera-filled VR headsets that are going to blend the real world with the virtual. They’ll also be able to track your room and your face at the same time. Call it mixed reality, XR or anything you want. Whatever you call it, VR’s going to get weirder. Qualcomm’s new AR/VR tech will be a big part of that. It’s coming as soon as next year, from a lot of different companies.

At the end of 2019, we’re still not living in a world where people are wearing magic virtual glasses everywhere. But we’re getting closer. VR headsets such as the Oculus Quest and AR headsets, which include the Hololens 2, are phone-free, totally wireless and both use chips made by Qualcomm. In the past, my peeks at early Qualcomm hardware were good indicators of where the VR and AR landscape were heading, for that very reason.

Qualcomm’s new 5G-compatible Snapdragon XR2 chip, announced today, could be the processor that drives all future headsets like Oculus Quest, Hololens and others in the next year or more. Qualcomm is readying a VR-based reference design with XR2 early next year and is separately working on a project with Niantic Labs to develop a reference design for smart glasses.

I got to take a quick peek at what’s coming. It seems promising, but it also raises a lot of questions.

A wave of next-gen 5G VR/AR headsets, without phones

Qualcomm’s new XR2 chip sounds powerful: It’s a VR/AR-specialized variation of the company’s newest Snapdragon 865 chip. Graphics should be twice as good as what’s on the current (and already excellent) Oculus Quest, and much higher display resolution should mean crisper visuals. Don’t expect retina-level displays, but 3K resolution per eye (that’s 2,880×2,880 pixels at 69 pixels per degree and at 90Hz) will be a big leap over current VR technology. Qualcomm says 8K video will play on these processors at 60fps, or 4K at 120fps.

5G is also possible on VR and AR headsets using this chip, using both sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave (mmWave) parts of the spectrum, but it’s more of an optional piece than an essential one. Qualcomm’s head of XR, Hugo Swart, says that 5G will be used for enterprise-based (read: more expensive) headsets for now. 5G should be a big deal for VR and AR eventually, especially with the promise to remotely render graphics in the cloud and reduce the load on the headset itself, making standalone headsets do more than they currently can. Microsoft has been promising remote rendering with Hololens 2, but it’s not been used yet in mainstream devices. “There is a strong interest and momentum with carriers to have the 5G version, so we may see an accelerated path there as well,” Swart says.

Cameras to track your inner and outer worlds

The wildest and weirdest part of the new chipset, though, is its support for seven cameras at once. Cameras are crucial in VR and AR: VR cameras track movement in the world, such as hand gestures and eye tracking. Qualcomm’s Swart sees more simultaneous cameras allowing for more face tracking, with cameras able to track facial movements, lips and microexpressions. Enterprise headsets could use cameras that sense other things. (Could that mean thermal cameras? Improved depth sensors?) 

Up to 7 cameras could run at once, but Swart said there could be as many as 12 cameras added to a headset with XR2, with the headset cycling between which cameras are used at any time. Qualcomm’s early prototype headset also has hand-tracking sensors made by Ultra Haptics, which didn’t work yet on the demo I tried. But the idea is that this next generation of headsets could be studded with sensors which handle better motion tracking, hand tracking, eye tracking, live collision avoidance of in-room obstacles and more.

All those cameras also raise questions of privacy. Where is all this information going? Swart says Qualcomm has a “strong security system” in place, but didn’t elaborate. How will companies like Facebook and others use more camera-studded, always-tracking headsets like these? It’s a big unknown.

A hands-on peek at the hardware’s promises

Qualcomm’s Swart says that companies are already working with the chip hardware, and headsets using Snapdragon XR2 will be coming by the end of 2020. But there isn’t even a final reference design for an XR2-based VR headset yet. What I got to demo was an early, early prototype, running an app from avatar-based workplace collaboration app Spatial at their New York headquarters. (The hardware you see here isn’t at all what future hardware would look like.)

Spatial’s CEO and co-founder, Anand Agarawala, guided me through a multidevice collaborative demo where I used Qualcomm’s XR2 hardware, while others worked on the Oculus Quest, the Hololens 2 and an Android phone. We all appeared as hovering avatars together. The XR2’s face-tracking and hand-tracking weren’t in place yet — the demo was clearly in an early state. But I got to see that the display resolution was a lot sharper than what I’m used to on Oculus Quest. A virtual sea turtle that floated in front of me looked vivid. Documents in a virtual conference room had far more readable text, even with smaller fonts.

I didn’t get to see Snapdragon XR2’s biggest killer app: It’s able to pull things from the outside world into VR, creating a pass-through augmented reality in VR. I’ve seen VR that does things like this, and even the Oculus Quest dabbles in it a bit to paint room boundaries in your actual room with the headset on. But future XR2-powered VR headsets should blend reality far more seamlessly, and Qualcomm’s Swart promises VR headsets will start offering AR capabilities at a lower price while smaller, sleeker smart glasses are still being developed. It reminds me of what Mark Zuckerberg was telling me earlier this year at Oculus Connect.

“I was skeptical at first, but when you try it… ‘oh, I can write on a whiteboard, I can move around, I can totally use this but it’s not an order of magnitude more cost,'” says Spatial’s Agarawala. “It’s going to be what the next wave of devices, Quest 2, et cetera, are probably going to feel like.”

Agarawala also feels bullish on where face tracking could take Spatial’s avatars next. “The ability to put a camera to face your lips … our most realistic avatars could get more realistic. They can also get facial expressions, that sort of stuff, non-verbal.”

It reminds me of Facebook’s research into next-generation avatars, ones that can mirror us, read our expressions and allow possible subtle gestures that start to become impossibly real. 

And based on all indicators from Qualcomm, we’re headed there soon enough.

FCC to create $9 billion 5G subsidy program for rural America

This article originally appeared on CNET by Marguerite Reardon.

The Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday that it plans to ditch a $4.5 billion subsidy program for 4G LTE in rural areas and instead launch a $9 billion fund to bring 5G wireless to hard to reach parts of the country. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the new fund will help carriers pay for 5G deployments in sparsely populated, hard-to-reach areas of the US, or areas in the states with rugged terrain.

The news comes as a yearlong investigation from the FCC found that carrier data that was supposed to help the agency target where money should go as part of its Mobility Fund II program was inaccurate. Now the FCC says it’ll scrap that fund and start a new one to focus on the next generation of wireless technology, known as 5G

Some policy experts have worried that rural Americans will be left out of 5G, which promises lightning-fast speeds and the ability to power new technologies like self-driving cars and advanced augmented and virtual reality experiences. 

Pai said the FCC’s fund is meant to ensure rural America isn’t left behind when it comes to 5G.

“We must ensure that 5G narrows rather than widens the digital divide and that rural Americans receive the benefits that come from wireless innovation,” Pai said in prepared remarks. 

One of the key applications for 5G in rural parts of the country is to provide connectivity for precision agriculture or technologies that improve the accuracy and control involved in growing crops and raising livestock. The FCC said it’ll set aside at least $1 billion from the fund specifically for 5G deployments focused on precision agriculture needs.

The rural digital divide

Getting broadband to rural parts of the country has proved to be a pernicious problem. In spite of the billions of dollars in private investment and government subsidies over multiple decades, the numbers still paint a disturbing picture. Roughly 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband, compared with just 4 percent of urban Americans, according to a report from the FCC using 2016 figures.

Building networks in rural America is incredibly expensive, and in some places it’s nearly impossible. The terrain is often a problem as well, with installing infrastructure difficult in mountainous regions or where the ground is frozen for much of the year. But the biggest barrier is often low population density. Broadband providers simply won’t offer service if they can’t get enough customers to pay for it. 

A fresh start

The new 5G Fund will replace the Mobility Fund Phase II, a fund that was meant to provide federal money to support the rollout of 4G LTE service in underserved parts of the country. The FCC plans to hold a reverse auction to allocate the funding, the agency said. 

“5G has the potential to bring many benefits to American consumers and businesses, including wireless networks that are more responsive, more secure, and up to 100 times faster than today’s 4G LTE networks,” Pai said in his statement. “We want to make sure that rural Americans enjoy these benefits, just as residents of large urban areas will.”

report from the FCC released Wednesday found that data submitted by Verizon, US Cellular and T-Mobile to qualify for funds in the Mobility Fund Phase II didn’t accurately portray real-life speed tests of service in many rural areas. 

“Specifically, FCC staff conducted thousands of speed tests to measure network performance and concluded that the MF-II coverage maps submitted by certain carriers likely overstated each provider’s actual coverage and did not reflect on-the-ground experience in many instances,” said the FCC, which named Verizon, US Cellular and T-Mobile. 

The report recommended ending the Mobility Phase II program and issuing an enforcement advisory on submitting bad data. An FCC official said Pai doesn’t intend to take enforcement action against carriers, because it wasn’t clear that the inaccuracies were the result of carriers deliberately misleading the agency. 

The Competitive Carrier Association, which represents wireless carriers in rural areas, said the report confirms what the industry group had said for some time, which was that the parameters established by the FCC to collect the data weren’t sufficient to yield a reliable map. 

“I thank the FCC for its findings that the MF II initial eligible areas maps are fatally flawed and its focus on improving the maps,” said CCA President and CEO Steven Berry. “The maps overstated coverage because the parameters relied on by the FCC model overstate coverage.” 

Berry went on to say that he welcomed the report’s recommendation to improve data collection to create more-accurate maps. 

“Congress has been following this issue very closely” Berry said. “This issue has bipartisan, bicameral support, and CCA urges swift consideration to ensure the maps more adequately reflect consumers’ on the ground experiences.”

Editor’s Corner: 5G is here, so what’s next?

This article originally appeared on FierceWireless by Monica Alleven.

While the industry has been talking about 5G for years, it’s really just getting started when you think about it from a 5G standards perspective.

Granted, there’s nothing like a good old conversation about wireless standards to get the debate going around the dinner table during the holidays. Before you know it, the entire room is buzzing about ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC), Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB) and 5G NR-U.

OK, back to reality. For starters, let’s take stock in what’s here now. In the standards world, 3GPP Release 15 is considered Phase 1 of 5G; it defined the foundation for the 5G network by presenting different architectural models for Non Standalone (NSA) and Standalone (SA) deployments, allowing mobile operators to select the most suitable ones for their network, according to GSMA’s head of Technology, Carlos Bosch.

U.S. incumbent operators are deploying first with the NSA version—which uses LTE as an anchor—and are expected to start moving to SA in 2020. (Yes, Dish Network is pursuing an SA strategy, but it’s contingent on the T-Mobile/Sprint merger happening.)

What’s so great about SA? NSA is an intermediate mode whereas SA is the purest, native form of 5G, which is also the most powerful version of 5G, according to Bosch. SA will provide operators with the full set of 5G functionalities and the optimal performance, such as data downlink speed (up to 20 Gigabits per second) and ultra-low latency (1 millisecond latency).

NSA modes rely on 4G core infrastructure that can’t take advantage of all 5G enhanced functions, and it’s not capable of supporting the optimal 5G performance levels, while its advantage is to provide the operators a means to deploy a “light version” of 5G early in the process.

Release 15 vs. Release 16

Some of the features in Release 15 are the new 5G radio module, enhancements to improve 5G performance such as evolved Mobile Broadband (eMBB), network slicing and service-based architecture, which is critical to 5G as it consolidates both hardware and software and, for the first time, allows for activities to take place on the cloud.

“Release 15 got several features closer to ultra-reliable low-latency communications with the evolution of vehicle-to-everything communication, mission-critical communications and network slicing,” Bosch said via email.

The main features deployed with Release 16, which moves into Phase 2 of 5G, include ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC), a tailored IoT mode that enables support for massive IoT (mIoT and industrial IoT) and further enhancements and extensions to vehicle-to-everything (V2X), including support for autonomous driving, tailored to 5G.

In addition, Release 16 will support a new set of functions under the umbrella term “5G Efficiency” that will make 5G more efficient in terms of energy, with reduced power consumption, location and position services and performance enhancement, including better antennae performance, Bosch said. Release 16 was approved in 2018 and it’s set to be “frozen,” referring to the final set of features, in the first quarter of 2020.

Equipment based on Release 16 will start coming to market beginning near the end of the second quarter of 2020 and into the second half of 2020 from early adopter manufacturers. “We expect products to continue rolling out over the course of several years, aligning with network deployment,” he said. 


One of the features in Release 15 that holds a lot of promise but isn’t yet deployed in the U.S. is Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB). The primary goal here is to improve capacity in areas where fiber might be sparse, challenging or cost-prohibitive to deploy. Basically, it increases the efficiency of deploying small cells, making it so that an operator doesn’t need fiber at every single small cell if it incorporates IAB into its system.

“I think it’s a very good tool,” said Chris Pearson, president of 5G Americas, in an interview. It’s not replacing fiber, but when it comes to operators densifying their networks, it’s something they’re likely to look at very closely. “It could be a very efficient way of helping you to deploy more small cells,” he said.

Some question whether IAB is only for millimeter wave or sub 6 GHz spectrum, and the way the standard is written, it does not limit IAB to any specific frequency bands, he added. Lower frequency spectrum may be too valuable to use for backhaul, so probably where it will be most relevant is where an operator has a lot of millimeter wave. The backhaul link, where both ends of the link are stationary, is especially suitable for the massive beam forming possible on the higher frequencies, according to 5G Americas.

Another coming attraction, this one in Release 16, is NR-Unlicensed, or NR-U. Extending on what’s been going on with LTE-U and LAA, NR-U will be able to operate in one of two modes: Standalone licensed access, where NR operates in an unlicensed band with no assistance from a carrier in a licensed band; and license assisted access (LAA), where the operation of NR in the unlicensed band makes use of a carrier in the licensed band for assistance, such as control signaling.

This has implications, for example, for the 6 GHz band, which is being studied in the U.S. for additional unlicensed uses. It’s another way to increase download speeds for end users. In the stand-alone mode, where it doesn’t require an anchor from LTE or a 5G core, it also can be beneficial for going into new vertical markets where enterprises want their own unlicensed private networks.

Already, there are 46 5G networks deployed globally, which is “tremendous,” according to Pearson, who says the industry deserves a pat on the back for how far it’s come with 5G. Remember, it was 2017 when the industry decided to accelerate the NSA implementation of 5G NR through the 3GPP, paving the way for large-scale trials and deployments based on the specification starting in 2019 instead of 2020.

“I think the industry has done a great job to get to where we are,” he said. “There’s great stuff that’s been accomplished so far, and there’s even greater technical features that are going to be deployed in the future.”

AT&T and Microsoft announce early result of their 5G-cloud partnership

This article originally appeared on CNN by Clare Duffy.

AT&T and Microsoft have announced the next phase of a partnershipthat’s aimed at advancing development in two of the buzziest areas of tech: 5G and cloud computing. The companies inked an agreement in July to work together on innovations in 5G and cloud. 5G is next generation network technology that’s expected to change the way people live and work. And the cloud is distributed data storage and computing power that doesn’t rely on traditional on-site data centers. AT&T (T) (CNN’s parent company) also agreed to migrate its data and workflows to the Microsoft Azure cloud, in what was reportedly a more than $2 billion deal for Microsoft (MSFT), according to Reuters. On Tuesday, Microsoft and AT&T’s business unit announced the pilot launch of their so-called “network edge compute” technology, an early outcome of the partnership. The advancement is expected to help both companies’ enterprise customers take advantage of the benefits of 5G, as AT&T works to roll out 5G across the US by mid-2020.”We’ve said all year, developers and businesses will be the early 5G adopters, and this puts both at the forefront of this revolution,” AT&T Business Chief Marketing Officer Mo Katibeh said in a statement Tuesday.AT&T will implement the Microsoft technology in some of the major metro areas where it’s installed 5G — AT&T says it will be available for select customers in Dallas early 2020, with Los Angeles and Atlanta slated for implementation later in the year. Microsoft and AT&T are excited about the technology’s potential, but Gartner analyst Bill Menezes says it’s not yet clear just how useful this technology will be and when it will be usable. “Right now, it’s creating a lot of noise that plays on a lot of current buzzwords in tech,” Menezes said. “What it actually produces remains to be seen.”

What is network edge compute? 

“Network edge compute” is a mouthful. Here’s what it means:5G promises to bring super fast download speeds, the ability to connect millions of devices and the ability to process massive amounts of data in nearly real time. But if those devices are connected to the cloud, reaping the benefits of 5G could get a little tricky. Typically, when a person accesses the “cloud,” it means their computer is communicating with a data center many miles away that’s storing and processing the information that person is using. And it takes time for information to travel the long distance from computer to data center. Think of saving a document to Microsoft OneDrive or Google Drive (both cloud applications) versus directly to your office computer that’s connected to an on-site server. When saving to the cloud, all the text in the document has to travel miles from the computer to the server, and then back to notify the computer that it’s been saved, meaning it will likely take a few seconds longer than on the office computer.

That’s not such a big deal when saving a single document, but when it comes to doing things such as processing large amounts of data or trying to render high-quality images for gaming, using the cloud can introduce lags in the ability to process information. For some new technologies, speed is essential. Self-driving cars, for example, need to be able to gather data about the world around them, transfer that data to the cloud to be processed and receive information from the cloud about how to react in nearly real time. That’s where network edge compute comes in. AT&T will build Microsoft Azure cloud servers into the architecture of its 5G network, so that when a device sends and receives data to and from the cloud, it’s talking to a server located in the same metro area, rather than hundreds or thousands of miles away. 

What the partnership could mean:

Microsoft and AT&T say that having access to network edge compute is going to help business customers develop transformative new kinds of technologies. Self-driving cars are one possible example, but so are drone delivery services, cloud gaming services and automated manufacturing facilities.”If you’re a business, you can never be too fast or too nimble,” Katibeh told CNN Business. “AT&T’s agreement with Microsoft helps with both — faster network speeds combined with edge computing that allows businesses to manage more data than ever before, closer to where they need it. We have many business customers, of all sizes, asking us to help them deploy 5G and edge computing capabilities.”It will likely take a while, though, to really see any real, widespread impact of network edge compute, just as it took time for 4G-powered applications such as Uber to become ubiquitous after it was deployed. It will take time for companies to switch over to using 5G and to develop their own technologies using network edge compute. “Incumbents already have a lot of capital expenditures baked into 4G,” said R.A. Farrokhnia, professor and Chazen senior scholar at Columbia Business School. “Not everyone will spend billions of dollars to switch all of their perfectly good 4G equipment to switch over to 5G overnight.”Nonetheless, this partnership is the sort of thing AT&T has to do to ensure 5G will really generate returns. The business implications of 5G are expected to far outweigh the benefits to consumers. And the Microsoft partnership could help AT&T attract enterprise customers at a time when many carriers are grappling for 5G dominance — AT&T is investing around $20 billion annually in 5G but rival Verizon (VZ) is close behind, spending $17 billion a year. “It’s an integral part of their growth strategy over the next few years,” Farrokhnia said. “Of course there will be some consumer spending applications (of 5G) but that’s not going to move the needle for telecom companies and create new revenue streams or services.” The deal is also likely to put Microsoft Azure in pole position when it comes to servicing AT&T’s enterprise clients, giving it a leg up in the fiercely competitive cloud computing market. Microsoft has been fighting its much bigger rival, Amazon Web Services, for big business and government agency cloud customers. “You have two marquee names saying they’re going to work together on two of their major business initiatives,” Gartner’s Menezes said. “That always helps lend credibility to the idea that this isn’t just marketing hype, there’s some substance to it.”

Upgrading to a 5G phone: When’s the right time?

This article originally appeared on PC World by Michael Simon.

If you’ve even glanced at a tech blog this year, you’ve surely seen the term 5G. Hailed as the next big advancement in mobility, 5G will be an enormous breakthrough for smartphones and other connected devices, letting us download movies in a blink of an eye, while eliminating frustrating slowdowns once and for all.

But just because you can buy a 5G phone right now doesn’t mean you should. Like all new tech, the earliest 5G phones are expensive and underwhelming, with soon-to-be-outdated parts and a vague promise of future-proofing.

But all that’s going to change very soon. 

In 2020, the 5G vision will begin to take shape in a real way, and if you’re interested in getting on board, you’ll want to make sure you upgrade to the right handset at the right time. Here’s what to look for, so don’t pull the trigger too early.

The right modem

X55 5G modem

Most people don’t give much thought to modems when they buy a phone, but you’ll want to check the spec sheet before buying your first 5G phone. Since Intel dropped out of the race and U.S. companies are forbidden from doing business with Huawei, Qualcomm is the only game in town when it comes to modems, and the first-generation X50 modem that’s in the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and other phones is truly a freshman effort.

But fret not! The first phones equipped with Qualcomm’s second-generation X55 5G modem will start hitting shelves in 2020, and it’s a massive improvement over the X50 modem that powers first-generation 5G phones.

Here’s how Qualcomm explains it: “Snapdragon X55 is a 7-nanometer single-chip integrated 5G to 2G multimode modem that supports 5G NR mmWave and sub-6 GHz spectrum bands with up to 7 gigabits per second (Gbps) download speeds and 3 Gbps upload speeds over 5G, and Category 22 LTE with up to 2.5 Gbps LTE download speeds.”

So let’s break all that down. Because it’s an integrated chip, it’s smaller, faster, and more efficient than its predecessor. The X50 modem was strictly a 5G modem, so it needed to be paired with a second 4G LTE modem alongside the Snapdragon 855 processor. But now that the X55 is a fully integrated solution, it will be much more versatile, and the next crop of 5G phones will likely be thinner and lighter than the current crop. And since the X55 is a standalone part, it will be able to integrated into mid-range processors too, so you won’t have to break the bank to get 5G.

And it’s faster too. While both chips support the mmWave and the sub-6Ghz spectrum bands that comprise the two common forms of 5G, the X50 topped off at 5Gbps, while the X55 is capable of reaching speeds of 7Gbps. Granted, no network is even close to achieving those speeds and probably won’t be for many many years, but a higher ceiling should make things speedier throughout.

Even more importantly, the X55 has an integrated LTE modem on board, so switching between the two networks (5G and 4G) should be faster and more seamless. That’s important because 5G networks are still being built out, and phones will need to jump between the networks regularly. So whether you’re buying an Android phone or an iPhone with 5G, you’ll want Qualcomm’s latest X55 modem inside.

The right service

There are a lot of ways to break down the definition of “service.” Let’s start by discussing why you’ll want your network to robustly support both mmWave and Sub-6Hz.


When you hear about 5G’s insane multi-gigabit speeds, mmWave is what people are talking about. And I can attest that it’s real and it’s spectacular. However, it’s also extremely limited. mmWave service relies on communication with small towers, so it’s deployment is often limited to discrete blocks in an urban environment rather than across multiple miles of uninterrupted service.

mmWave is also very finicky, has trouble penetrating walls and thick glass, and needs a straight line of sight, so if you’re walking away from a tower you might lost service. That said, carriers are working on technologies to enhance the reliability and reach of mmWave, and it will definitely be a major component of 5G, especially in major cities. But it’s going to be quite limited for many years to come.


While mmWave is nice, Sub-6Hz 5G is the 5G most people will be experiencing. Similar to LTE, it uses common wireless frequencies and antennas to broadcast its signal, much like 4G LTE. While there are limitations when compared to mmWave—mainly speeds and bandwidth—it’s far more realistic on a nationwide scale, so you’ll want to make sure your carrier is bringing Sub-6Hz to your town before committing to a 5G phone. The good news, though, is that the infrastructure rollout should be much quicker than mmWave, which has been frustratingly slow.


Speaking of infrastructure, there’s no bigger factor in buying (or not buying) a 5G phone than what your wireless carrier is doing in your own backyard. That’s because 5G networks are still being built, and the Big 4 U.S. carriers are all battling each other for bragging rights. All four carriers have some version of 5G up and running, but depending on which service you subscribe to, the 5G experience will be very different. Let’s break down who’s doing what.

, Houston, and 

Verizon: Verizon claims that 30 cities will have 5G by the end of 2019, but so far it’s only delivered on roughly half of that promise, and that’s only if you include cities with NFL stadium deployment (denoted with an asterisk):

  • Atlanta, GA
  • Baltimore, MD*
  • Boise, ID
  • Boston, MA
  • Chicago, IL
  • Dallas, TX
  • Denver, CO
  • Detroit, MI
  • Houston, TX
  • Indianapolis, IN
  • Foxboro, MA
  • Miami, FL*
  • Minneapolis, MN*
  • East Rutherford, NJ*
  • New York, NY
  • Omaha, NE
  • Panama City, FL
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Providence, RI
  • Seattle, WA*
  • Sioux Falls, SD
  • St. Paul, MN
  • Washington, DC

Even if you live in one of the cities above, your 5G experience will still be spotty because Verizon has opted to build out its 5G service using high frequency millimeter waves, which deliver the fastest possible speeds but also rely on a very precise deployment. Every time Verizon launches 5G in a new city, it needs to set up a system of mini towers that are affixed to the tops of telephone poles and buildings. Since the network is literally bring built from the ground up, the roll-out is extremely laborious, so in some cases the 5G network is limited to just a few blocks.

Verizon allegedly has a plan to blanket the nation with slower-but-still-way-faster-than-LTE sub-6Ghz 5G, but it hasn’t announced when, where or how it will begin rolling it out. Expectations are that it will begin sometime in 2020, though.

AT&T: While AT&T was technically the first U.S. carrier to deliver 5G via a handful of hotspots in late 2018, its mobile deployment has somewhat stalled since then. AT&T has focused mainly on homes and businesses with mmWave cells for its first round of 5G coverage, but expects to begin rolling out its sub-6GHz 5G to mobile customers in early 2020. That should dramatically improve the coverage area, but AT&T hasn’t offered much in the way of specifics. For now, AT&T is mainly delivering insanely fast stationary broadband via 5G.

However, that might change before the calendar changes to 2020. AtT&T announced on November 21 that it will be flipping the switch on its nationwide 5G before the end of 2019 over its over low-band spectrum in several cities across the U.S.:

  • Indianapolis, IN
  • Pittsburgh, PA
  • Providence, R.I.
  • Rochester, N.Y.
  • San Diego, CA

Additionally, it says 5G will be quickly expanding to several more markets:

  • Birmingham, AL
  • Boston, MA
  • Bridgeport, CT
  • Buffalo, NY
  • Las Vegas, NV
  • Louisville, KY
  • Milwaukee, WI
  • New York, NY
  • San Francisco, CA
  • San Jose, CA

Its unclear what the speeds are, but based on the maps provided, the coverage is far better than Verizon’s mmWave. However, since it’s using a low-band spectrum, speeds will likely be far slower than they are on Verizon. 

Sprint: Sprint has put its 5G rollout on hold as it waits for its merger with T-Mobile to clear the final FCC and judicial hurdles, but it does have a 5G presence in a few cities:

  • Atlanta, GA
  • Chicago, IL
  • Dallas, TX
  • Houston, TX
  • Kansas City, KS
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • New York, NY
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Washington, D.C.

Sprint is focusing more on continuous coverage rather than multi-gig speeds, using its 2.5Ghz spectrum and Massive MIMO to provide a greater 5G footprint. It basically piggybacks onto LTE networks, so coverage in the cities listed above extends hundreds, even thousands of square feet, rather a few blocks. However, we won’t know much about Sprint’s 2020 plans until the date of its merger with T-Mobile is officially decided (but it’s looking good).

T-Mobile: T-Mobile was the last carrier to bring 5G to its network, but that’s about to change in a big way. While it already offers minimal but speedy mmWave in a handful of cities (Cleveland, OH; Dallas, TX; Las Vegas, NV; Los Angeles, CA; and New York, NY), T-Mobile has announced that it will roll out “Nationwide 5G” on December 6 using its expansive 600MHz spectrum.

It’s not nearly as fast as the 2Gbps-plus speeds that mmWave networks have reached—T-Mobile says it can reach speeds of 450Mbps—and there are a lot of unknowns, most notably how it scales and how much of the nation will be covered. But T-Mobile says it will reach 200 million people, so it will definitely be the widest 5G coverage map so far.

The right price

Lest we forget, you did start reading this article because you want to know when to buy that 5G handset. So, ultimately this is a decision hinged on spending money, and you’ll want to be aware that 5G currently demands a premium.

Android phones

The first crop of 5G phones are extremely expensive for two reasons: It’s new technology, and the phones need to be very big to handle the battery and thermal requirements of the existing X50 modem. But with the X55 modem expected to arrive in early 2020, prices should come down considerably, maybe even to the point where the only option in Android flagships is 5G, just like 4G.

As with the launch of the fledgling 4G network, we wouldn’t recommend paying extra just for 5G chipset support. But hopefully 2020 will bring much more reasonably priced handsets, including some mid-range options thanks to the X55 modem. 


With around 200 million handsets sold every year, 5G won’t be a thing until Apple says it is. But all signs point to 2020 being the year. With the X55 modem and a strong sub-GHz infrastructure likely in place by then, all signs point to the era of 5G likely commencing with the launch of the iPhone 12. Rumor has it that it might be a “Pro” option rather than something available on all three models. So, just like with Android phones, we’d recommend against paying extra just for 5G. But there will surely be plenty of reasons to opt for the iPhone 12 Pro other than just its 5G support.

FCC’s new 5G push could mean faster phones, rural broadband and more money for the US

This article originally appeared on Fox Business by Fox Business Staff.

You keep hearing about 5G, but you may not know why.

It was in the news again Monday. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said he is advocating for a public auction of airwaves currently used by satellite companies (the so-called C-band spectrum) for new fifth-generation wireless networks or the 5G you have heard so much about.

Pai’s timing just about coincided with the announcement of a bill from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) requiring the FCC to “conduct a public auction of C band spectrum.” The also calls for the auction to start before Dec. 31, 2020.

So what does this mean?

Well, according to chipmaker Qualcomm, 5G will “elevate the mobile network to not only interconnect people, but also interconnect and control machines, objects, and devices. It will deliver new levels of performance and efficiency that will empower new user experiences and connect new industries.”

Or as Verizon tells you on its website: “it is expected to be one of the fastest wireless technologies ever created.”

But it is not just about speed. Rural areas — underserved in the broadband marketplace — could see new opportunities funding from a public 5G auction as Pai recently outlined.

Expanded and faster broadband is something everyone wants, but not everyone wants to rush these auctions. Satellite companies don’t own the “spectrum,” they’ve just been using it for the last four decades or so for “broadcasting programming to 120 million US homes,” according to the C-Band Alliance, an industry group that includes Intelsat and SES.

This group argues that the FCC lacks the authority to take over and run an auction without compensating them.

AT&T, which owns satellite service, DirecTV and is the country’s biggest mobile phone provider, doesn’t disagree.

“As we have previously said, any path forward must chart a course toward a fair, open and transparent auction; compensation to C-Band licensees for relinquishing rights and relocating services; proceeds for the U.S. Treasury; and a clear and reasonable transition plan that ensures broadcasters, programmers and earth station operators that their services will not be interrupted and that their relocation costs will be reimbursed,” Joan Marsh, AT&T executive vice president of Regulatory & State External Affairs, said in a statement.

A public auction run by the FCC could translate to more money for the government. Any proceeds would go directly to the U.S. Treasury. In the last 25 years, the FCC has conducted 93 auctions netting $116 billion for the Treasury.

C-Band Alliance has said it would not leave the U.S. Treasury empty-handed if it was allowed to hold the auction privately. One official estimated it could be as much as $8 billion.

Leading the charge to press the FCC to push for a public auction has been Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). In a recent speech on the Senate floor, Kennedy said he was encouraging the FCC “to hold a public auction, take some of that $60 billion they’re going to get and use it for rural broadband to make sure that the people who live in rural areas get taken care of as well as the people who live in the cities.”

Kennedy also argues that 5G is an issue of nationalism as well as national security. Noting that some of the satellite companies are headquartered outside the U..S., Intelsat, for example, is based in Luxembourg, Kennedy said.

“Our job is not to maximize profits for foreign corporations,” he said. “Our job is to help our people, and this 5G has national security implications. Before we give away these 5G airwaves to a foreign corporation, we need to know who they’re going to give it to. What if they give it to China?”

Competition with China is a concern on the 5G front. A 2018 Deloitte report said China has outspent the U.S. by approximately $24 billion in 5G wireless infrastructure since 2015.

The FCC’s Pai has warned that China’s spending — and lead — on the 5G front could lead to the creation of “two different internets” which Pai added will “be something that’s unfortunate for consumers and something that’s potentially dangerous in the long run.”

Wi-Fi strives for BFF relationship with 5G

This article originally appeared on FierceWireless by Monica Alleven.

The priorities for the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) in coming months include making sure Wi-Fi 6 and 5G become the best of friends, rather than perpetuating any type of friction or other comparisons between the two.

That’s according to Tiago Rodrigues, who was named CEO of the WBA in September. Rodriguez has been involved with the WBA since 2004 and is one of the driving forces behind the deployment of Hotspot 2.0 and SIM-authentication over Wi-Fi.

WBA’s operator members include AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Comcast, to name a few. Technology-provider members include Nokia, Google, Facebook, Qualcomm and many more.

One of the reasons for the keen interest in seeing Wi-Fi 6 get along with 5G has to do with the increased convergence between 5G and Wi-Fi 6. A lot of information coming out about 5G would have one believing it’s the best technology ever, but there are cases where it’s not the best choice for, say, an enterprise’s in-building coverage, according to Rodrigues.

“5G should not be seen as just a 5G New Radio technology,” he said, but as a transitional platform that will also have other types of technologies that can be integrated.

By way of example, he said no one is ever going to cover a highway with Wi-Fi; it wasn’t designed to provide mobility at 70 mph—that’s for 5G to cover. But there are scenarios where a 20-floor hotel or an office building needs indoor coverage, and 5G may not be the ideal technology due to costs and device complexity. Basically, “we should not have a narrow view of 5G,” he said.

In the U.S., Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is sometimes held up as better than Wi-Fi; it’s emerging as a band for deploying private LTE. But Rodrigues said he believes Wi-Fi will remain part of the mix. The decisions for IT managers or CIOs are getting far more complex because there are so many options; they need to be sure of their requirements and goals in order to choose the best solution, whether it be a slice of 5G provided by a carrier or something else.

The WBA and Huawei recently announced a Wi-Fi pilot that involves a series of Wi-Fi 6 verification tests at Mondragon University in Spain, where they’re exploring innovative Wi-Fi 5 use cases. The pilot project is designed to pave the way for immersive education methods such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), which are changing the way teachers and students interact on campus. Similarly, expectations call for the trial to include testing Wi-Fi 6 for online live broadcasts and remote education.

Earlier this year, the WBA completed a Wi-Fi 6 industrial enterprise and IoT trial with Mettis Aerospace, a U.K. designer and manufacturer of components primarily for the aerospace and defense industry. The aerospace company reportedly decided to go with Wi-Fi 6 for its backward compatibility with multiple devices and the longevity of the technology. Its machines normally need to last for a couple decades and Wi-Fi fit the bill, including in the area of security.

While the U.S. continues to focus on finding more spectrum for unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi, it’s largely the same situation in other countries, according to Rodrigues.

That said, Wi-Fi 6’s big improvement is in the optimization of traffic flows. Until now, Wi-Fi was a “super polite” technology, with only one device “talking” at a time. With Wi-Fi 6, the traffic is better organized and more than one device can talk at the same time. It uses Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access, or OFDMA, a technique commonly used in cellular.

Cord cutter broadband usage surges to more than half a terabyte of data per month

This article originally appeared on FierceTelecom by Mike Robuck.

While the over-the-top (OTT) video wars play out across various devices and screens, cord cutters are having a dramatic impact on broadband usage, according to a report.

According to a report by broadband analytics vendor OpenVault, the average broadband consumption by cord cutters was 520.8 GB per month, an increase of 7% in the third quarter of this year. The third quarter OpenVault Broadband Industry report took the pulse of “power” cord cutter broadband users and their impact on service providers’ networks.

The report also highlighted differences in consumption patterns between subscribers on usage-based billing (UBB) plans and those on flat-rate billing (FRB) plans.

According to the report, the percentage of cord cutters who are “power users” that consume 1 TB or more of data per month is 12%, which is almost triple the 4.2% third-quarter figure for weighted average (UBB plus FRB) subscribers.

The total number of power users increased 62% year-over-year, driven largely by FRB subscribers. While UBB subscribers chose 1 Gbps packages at a rate that is 89% higher than that of FRB subscribers, FRB subscribers exceeded 1 TB at a 30% higher rate and 2 TB at a 64% higher rate than those on UBB plans.

Despite the increased usage in streaming, OpenVault’s analysis showed that only 29% of the users upgraded their broadband packages when interacting with operators’ customer care teams to sever video services. Two thirds of cord cutters maintained the same broadband packages, while 4% actually downgraded their broadband services.

“A cord cutting event usually signals a need for faster broadband speeds,” the report said. “Cord cutters are opting for high-bandwidth OTT services, and are using multiple devices in the home to consume video, often simultaneously. This behavior lends itself to higher speed, higher margin broadband packages to ensure an acceptable broadband customer experience, and the cord cutting event is the best time for operators to educate customers and upsell them accordingly.”

According to the report, the Q3 2019 overall weighted average broadband usage in the United States was 275 GB, a year-over-year increase of 21% over the 228 GB in the same quarter a year ago. During the same period, the median monthly weighted average usage increased nearly 25% from 118.2 GB to 147.4 GB, indicating that consumption is increasing across the market as a whole.

The report also looked at usage across speed tiers between European subscribers and their North American counterparts. At faster levels of service, usage is closely aligned between the two regions and is almost identical at the 50-75 Mbps tier; at lower tiers North American subscribers are consuming data at greater rates, including nearly 150% more at the 30-40 Mbps speed tier, and nearly 50% more at the 10-20 Mbps tier.

USA, China, Japan and Korea to dominate 5G: study

This article originally appeared on Reuters by Douglas Busvine.

BERLIN (Reuters) – China, the United States, Japan and Korea will account for more than half of the world’s subscribers to super-fast 5G mobile networks by 2025, leaving Europe lagging, a study showed on Thursday.

Europe, moving more slowly to build 5G networks, will lag in terms of consumer take-up. Yet the picture looks different in business, where 5G will be able to run ‘smart’ factories using connected robots, devices and sensors. 

“It’s going to be a small cluster of countries that leads adoption in 5G, with the rest of the world following,” Tim Hatt, head of research at GSMA Intelligence, told Reuters. 

“China, Japan, Korea and the U.S. – between those, you’re looking at well over half of worldwide 5G subscribers by 2025.” 

The rapid rollout of 5G networks, with speeds fast enough to download a movie to a smartphone in seconds, has surprised many. Nokia, the world’s No.2 network vendor behind Huawei [HWT.UL], recently suspended its dividend to invest in upgrading the 5G gear it sells to carriers. 

In Korea, 66% of mobile connections will be 5G by mid-decade, GSMA Intelligence forecast in a 100-page study, followed by the United States on 50% and Japan on 49%. 

In terms of sheer numbers, China will predominate with 600 million 5G connections. Worldwide, 1.57 billion people are expected to adopt 5G by 2025 – or 18% of total mobile users. 

Early experience shows that carriers can hike 5G prices by 15%-20%, offering ‘more for more’ unlimited data plans. But, if the past is anything to go by, those gains will eventually be competed away.


With standards to enter force in a couple of years that will support the development of the industrial ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), such usage is seen by European industry as a more promising way to recoup the vast outlays needed for 5G. 

Rather than sell to enterprise clients, Hatt said carriers would be better off teaming up with them on projects in the IoT – a market that GSMA Intelligence forecasts will be worth $1 trillion in 2025, roughly equal to total mobile industry revenue last year. 

Yet of that, only 5% will come from connectivity, forcing carriers to compete with global consulting firms and Silicon Valley tech giants like Amazon or Microsoft for the rest of the pie, said Hatt. 


For developing nations, it’s the spread of affordable connectivity through older 4G technology – and not 5G – that will affect the lives of billions of people for years to come, the research arm of telecoms industry group GSMA found. 

Looking to emerging markets like Nigeria, Mexico, India or Indonesia, a combination of cheap Android smartphones and affordable data still offers growth potential. 

GSMA Intelligence forecasts that 59% of total worldwide mobile connections will be 4G in 2025.

“For a lot of these countries 5G is just not on the horizon right now,” said Hatt. 

“That 4G generation (is) for the most part mobile only. They don’t have computers… This is a whole new ball game and the operators are pretty well positioned to take advantage of that.”

The 4G-5G Connection

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Bob O’Donnell.

One of the many challenges that has plagued previous cellular network generation changes has been the need to do a hard switchover from one standard to the next. That was the case from 2G to 3G, as well as 3G to 4G. In other words, before 4G became real, all new network infrastructure equipment (see The 5G Landscape, Part 1: Infrastructure) and all new devices (see The 5G Landscape, Part 2: Spectrum and Devices) had to be installed and available before 4G could really get started. With the debut of 5G, however, the notion of network standard replacement goes away, because 5G doesn’t initially replace 4G. In fact, it actually builds upon and enhances 4G LTE networks, as will be explained shortly.

This is, in part, due to the fact that there are essentially two different implementations of 5G networks. The first version—and the one currently in use by all existing 5G networks—is referred to as non-standalone (or NSA). 5G NSA has some, but not all, of the capabilities of the full standalone (or SA) version of 5G. Having learned some hard lessons in previous network generation shifts, particularly with regard to how long the transitions took to fully complete, the telecom industry created the NSA version of 5G to serve as a transitional standard designed to smooth what could have been another hard shift from 4G to the full 5G SA standard.

In practical terms, this means that all the early implementations of 5G use a combination of 4G and 5G technology to function. Specifically, initial call and connection management for 5G devices is handled by the core 4G network and then switched over to 5G once the initial connection is made. In addition, all data uploads on early 5G phones actually use a 4G LTE connection—meaning upload speeds will be absolutely identical to what they would be with a 4G phone. But—and this is where it starts to get interesting—it does so with the latest and most advanced versions of 4G, which is sometimes called LTE Advanced. In other words, the deployment of 5G is actually encouraging the upgrading of 4G networks to their most advanced versions. LTE Advanced has been available for several years now and some carriers (notably AT&T in the US) are calling it 5Ge, or 5G Evolution, even though it is most definitely not an official 5G standard, but rather the latest iteration of 4G.

When 5G SA networks (and compatible devices) become available, all connections will switch over to a dedicated 5G network, including data uploads and additional capabilities promised for 5G will also become available. One critical thing to know about 4G LTE Advanced, 5G NSA, and 5G SA is that you only get the full benefits of the network type if the network infrastructure equipment you happen to connect to and the device you happen to be using both support the same standard. If they don’t, then you fall back to whatever network type that both sides of the connection support. In other words, if you have a 5G NSA phone, but happen to be in a geographical area where the local telecom carrier still only has 4G network infrastructure installed, you’ll only get a 4G connection. In fact, it’s even possible you would get a standard 4G connection and not even LTE Advanced if the cell towers haven’t been upgraded in a while. (Remember, it’s very expensive and time consuming for carriers to upgrade their network equipment, so it’s going to take them a while to upgrade their full network.) 

In order to get the full benefits of a standalone 5G network, you need to have a 5G SA-capable phone—none of which have shipped yet, and the earliest of which won’t show up until very late this year, but primarily in 2020—and you need to be in an area where the carriers have upgraded their cell towers to support 5G SA as well. The network infrastructure support for full 5G SA isn’t likely to be available until 2021 in the US and, in many areas, may not be available until several years after that. The best you can do right now is to have a 5G NSA-equipped phone on a 5G NSA network.

By the way, just to clarify, the non-standalone versus standalone distinction has nothing to do with radio frequency spectrum. So, for example, you can have both mmWave and sub-6 frequencies on both NSA and SA 5G networks. This can potentially get confusing, because some of the marketing names that carriers are using to describe their networks can sometimes suggest a connection between spectrum and the type of network.

Remember, you can work backwards when it comes to network types and capabilities. For example, a standalone-capable 5G (SA) smartphone can connect to a 5G NSA network—but you won’t get the full benefits of standalone 5G. Generally speaking, the speed of connections won’t typically change between a 5G standalone network and a 5G non-standalone connection—that’s more dependent on the type of frequencies being used for the connection (mmWave, sub-6, etc.—again see The 5G Landscape, Part 2: Spectrum and Devices for an explanation). However, a few other highly touted features of 5G—notably low latency connections, network slicing, and URLLC (Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications—a technology primarily designed for machine-to-machine, industrial, and IoT applications) are only available with 5G SA-capable infrastructure and 5G SA-capable phones and other devices. Future columns will describe these capabilities in more detail but suffice it to say that not all the full capabilities and benefits being touted for 5G will be available in the first few years of its existence.

One obvious question that comes from all this is, how does one move from 4G to 5G NSA to 5G? The answer, of course, is that it depends. In the case of devices that connect to the network, such as smartphones, you need to have one that has a modem with built-in support for the various network types. Unfortunately, you can’t “upgrade” a modem to support new network types (just as you can’t upgrade a modem or its associated RF front end to support different types of radio frequency spectrum) after it’s been shipped. (For more details on modems and RF front ends, see The 5G Landscape, Part 2: Spectrum and Devices.) Most all of the 5G-capable phones currently being shipped use Qualcomm’s X50 modem, which only supports 5G NSA. To get standalone 5G support, you’ll need one with the forthcoming Qualcomm X55. In addition, later this year other companies, including MediaTek, will begin shipping both 5G NSA and 5G SA-capable modems that will start being incorporated into smartphones and other devices in early 2020.

In the case of network infrastructure, the story is a bit different. Because of the long lifetime and high cost of the equipment, network infrastructure vendors like Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and others have been building software upgradable versions of their cell tower equipment for several years. In particular, there has been a great deal of effort to produce equipment that can be easily upgraded from 4G Advanced LTE to 5G NSA. This is yet another example of how the deployment of 5G is making 4G networks better, because this upgradability typically wasn’t available on standard 4G infrastructure—only on the newer, more advanced versions of 4G network equipment. As a result, it provided strong motivation for carriers to upgrade their networks.

One of the reasons software-only upgrades are possible is that a great deal of the sub-6 frequencies expected to be used for 5G are also currently being used for 4G. As a result, there isn’t a need to add new antennas and other radio access network, or RAN, equipment to support these frequencies when they want to switch their networks to 5G. (Note that new equipment is required for mmWave, hence the additional cost and slower pace of deploying these higher frequencies.) In many cases, this same equipment can then be once again upgraded to 5G SA, although there typically are other elements necessary to enable a fully standalone 5G network. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg situation, because there’s no need to turn on 5G SA infrastructure until there are enough 5G SA-capable phones in use to justify the effort and expense.

One other critical capability that’s making the transition from 4G to 5G easier is a technology first developed by Ericsson, but now being used by all infrastructure vendors, called DSS, or Dynamic Spectrum Sharing. The trick is that even though both 4G and 5G signals could potentially be used on the same frequency, the different makeup of the signals prevented them from being used at the same time. As a result, carriers were going to have to decide to split their spectrum at given frequencies into smaller chunks, then carry 4G signals in one part and 5G signals in the other. The problem was that this would negatively impact the vast majority of people continuing to use 4G devices by reducing the amount of total bandwidth available to them. Early 5G users, on the other hand, would have had a very lightly used network, which might have been nice for them, but expensive and inefficient for the carriers.

However, Ericsson figured out a clever way to dynamically and automatically divide the spectrum as network traffic demanded so that it could be used as efficiently as possible and allow both 4G and 5G network signals to work across whatever bandwidth was available. This is a tremendous boon to carriers, because it allows them to easily and quickly make 5G service available on at least some of their existing network infrastructure. To be clear, there is a bit of network overhead required to allow this capability. As with many aspects of cellular networks, devices and network infrastructure need to specifically be able to support the technology, but DSS is clearly an important factor in early 5G network deployments.

The final point to make about the connections between 4G and 5G is that much of development of 5G standards was done with the specific assumption that 4G service would continue to exist for some time to come. Even when completely standalone 5G networks and devices become available, most telecom companies, device makers and industry observers expect 4G to be an important part of the wireless landscape. One critical reason is that if there are areas where no 5G service is available, even 5G standalone devices will fall back to a 4G connection. Plus, there is a huge installed base of 4G devices that isn’t going to go away anytime soon, particularly in industrial applications, and they will continue to need networks to which they connect. The bottom line is that while 5G clearly points the way forward, it’s built on a foundation of 4G that will be a critical part of its operation and success.