The 5G potential: where we are and what the future holds

Since its initial launches in 2019 and 2020, 5G has been touted as the shining future of wireless connectivity. Expected to enable widespread adoption of technology’s most exciting innovations — like virtual and augmented reality — and drastically increase the scope and speed of big data storage and transfer, individuals and companies alike wanted to access 5G as quickly as possible.

Today, nearly every American can access a 5G network in their area as long as they have the right device. But as the 5G rollout continues, providers have much to consider from a technical, practical, and even ethical standpoint. 

This interview with a former Verizon executive looks at what that provider perspective has been like throughout the 5G journey. How did providers anticipate 5G’s value across different vertical markets? How did they position the product for each customer segment? Where is 5G most useful and where is it not? How did providers prioritize the 5G rollout when customer requests exceeded bandwidth to launch it?

Quick Takeaways

  • Verizon had to strategically vet and manage potential 5G clients as demand for 5G exceeded bandwidth to implement it.
  • COVID-19 has had both positive and negative impacts on 5G — shutdowns slowed physical expansion while demand for virtual experiences created new opportunities for innovation.
  • Verizon has incorporated several social impact initiatives into their 5G strategy across industries, most notably in education and healthcare.
  • Policymakers must get on board with 5G technology in order for it to reach its full potential for impact.

Verizon’s 5G rollout: structure, bandwidth, and capabilities

Everyone wanted to try 5G when it became available. From startups to educational institutions to large enterprises, companies wanted to explore the possibilities to level up their operations and offerings using new 5G technologies. At the same time, many of these same companies did not understand the financial, technical, and time requirements of 5G implementation.

“My role was to engage [with] potential customers or potential partners, whether large or small . . . to discuss what is possible, or whether or not they are or are not ready, and if . . . the use cases that they have aligned with internal priorities, which constantly kept changing as you can imagine.”

In other words: providers vetted customers for readiness and alignment with what that provider deemed most important for 5G expansion. This expert and others in similar roles aimed to find the potential customers whose use cases would demonstrate the highest value of 5G capability. 

Verizon manages this process with 6 ecosystem-specific 5G labs located across the U.S. and in London:

“For example, [the] New York lab dealt with finance and retail and fashion. D.C. lab dealt a lot with first responders. San Francisco lab dealt with Silicon Valley. Los Angeles was entertainment . . . the Boston area [lab] focused on healthcare, education, precision manufacturing in drones, and robotics.”

The process uncovered (and continues to uncover) valuable insights for the provider and for the potential of 5G technology, including use cases in each vertical where 5G was most and least useful (in healthcare, for example, it proved more useful and scalable for telemedicine than for remotely-assisted surgery) and how to prepare companies to effectively leverage 5G (for example, how to assess, analyze, and store data as it comes in at a new and increased volume and speed).

Pandemic creates both roadblocks and opportunities

COVID-19 emerged in the thick of 5G’s initial rollout, and its impacts were immediate and wide-ranging. On one hand, the sale of 5G-accessible devices went down and expansion speed was slowed as retail stores and all types of businesses closed down during the initial months of the pandemic.

Simultaneously, new opportunities for 5G use cases exploded as people turned to virtual engagement for just about every aspect of their lives. It turned out to be a complex but exciting time for 5G providers as they navigated these opportunities and how they varied across industry verticals.

“As COVID continued, we shifted with online retail and apps that can do virtual reality. For example, to try on your glasses before you buy them. That’s [augmented] reality. . . . At the same time, we shifted our focus to virtual meetings, or mixed reality meetings, and virtual concerts, and entertainment. During COVID, that’s what the demand was for us.”

“We were looking at . . . what interesting things can we do for entertainment purposes to bring it to home? That was a focus more on consumers. [But in] telemedicine . . . we stepped away from individual consumers and focused more on hospitals and telemedicine as a general field. Again, it would depend on the vertical. It would depend on business versus consumer. It would depend on realistic deployment plans as it relates to a particular city or a particular geography.”

The expert outlined a number of exciting ways 5G technology enabled virtual experiences throughout the pandemic. Some had pure entertainment value, others were educational, and others critical to increasing hospital bandwidth and saving lives. 

Some examples:

  • Verizon partnered with the Smithsonian to make 3D stories about various aircrafts available to schools
  • 5G technology made it possible for doctors across specialties to practice procedures like intubation so they could help care for COVID-19 patients
  • Verizon worked with the Oscars to create Storm Trooper holograms that guests could interact with remotely.

5G’s social impact potential

Wrapped into the potential of 5G technology is the ethical question of social responsibility on the part of providers. Do they have an obligation to use 5G to contribute to the larger social good? The analyst conducting this interview posed that question, and it turns out that Verizon and other providers do indeed incorporate social impact initiatives into their 5G strategies.

“When I was at Verizon, there was an initiative for, I believe it was called [Verizon Citizen]. It’s trying to make 5G or, in general, connectivity available to those who were not in a position to get it. It was not to give it for free but to come up with innovative solutions to get data. The initiative that I mentioned earlier between American Heart Association and John Hopkins University was actually to close the digital gap for those who are underprivileged both financially and physically, so those who need their telecare but don’t necessarily have a high signal at home.”

“There are a number of social issues related to schools. I think I saw a study somewhere that [said] something like only 70% of U.S. households have any internet connection . . . Verizon is involved in a lot of social responsibilities. Some of them were around education, whether higher education or elementary education. Again, first responders [are] a whole entire different area but it’s about 30% of everything that we’ve done at innovation.”

The pandemic has exposed — perhaps more than ever —the need for corporations and public entities to use innovation and technologies like 5G for the greater good. According to this expert, these initiatives from Verizon are really only the tip of the iceberg. In the future, we can expect to see smart ambulances, advanced drone technology, and virtual and augmented reality in schools everywhere (among other innovations).

But these innovations can only reach their full potential if policymakers get on board.

“Those are innovations that certainly touch a lot on government policy. In terms of just what are my thoughts on policy? I think, personally, I would say that many people who are responsible for policy changes are not comfortable with innovation, not comfortable with change. Yet, they are responsible for budgets that drive those innovations. There is a tremendous amount of educating the decision-makers [needed] to be able to affect policy.”

Access the full transcript for even more insights

Want to dive deeper into X? Access the full transcript for this interview to learn more about:

  • The technical requirements for 5G adoption
  • 5G and drone forensics technology
  • How legislative policy impacts 5G expansion

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