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AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile try to fuel 5G by fostering startups

All three big US operators have invested in programs to encourage the development of new, fancy 5G applications and services. But so far those efforts haven't given rise to widespread deployments.

Rob Pegoraro

September 14, 2021

5 Min Read
AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile try to fuel 5G by fostering startups

The major US wireless carriers aren't content with waiting to see what innovative 5G applications sprout from their networks; they're getting some dirt under their own fingernails and doing some of the gardening themselves.

AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have each set up labs and incubators to help established companies and startups build apps and services on their 5G frequencies. The results so far have included cars operated by drivers sitting miles away, four-legged robots and not just drones but an automated drone-tracking network.

The early returns on these efforts, however, also offer still more reason to think that 5G's payoff won't come until carriers can graduate from patchy deployments of non-standalone 5G to more widespread and standalone 5G. Or as baseball fans often say in September: Wait 'til next year.

"It's still 5G 'light,' " said Roger Entner, founder and lead analyst at Recon Analytics, in a phone interview. "We're still in an incomplete solution."

Labs and studios

Such ventures into incubating 5G inventiveness as AT&T's 5G Innovation Studio, the T-Mobile-backed 5G Open Innovation Lab and Verizon's 5G Labs all have to deal with problems already familiar to 5G customers, such as limited coverage by the fastest 5G spectrum bands.

But their emphasis on applications that require the lowest latencies possible also leaves many of them waiting on wider deployment of standalone 5G – and that's an area where carriers are already lagging.

Among the big three, T-Mobile has been particularly aggressive in fostering 5G startups – with results that so far look a little less vaporous, thanks to that carrier's fast and fairly widely available midband 5G network.

"Yes, I actually think some of these feel very real," emailed Anshel Sag, senior analyst for mobility, 5G and XR at Moor Insights & Strategy.

He pointed in particular to such T-Mobile-backed projects as the Guardian XT industrial robot from Salt Lake City-based Sarcos Robotics, which will use T-Mobile 5G for remote viewing and operation. Another is Halo, a Las Vegas car-sharing service that eliminates the need to find an available car nearby by having a "pilot" remotely drive it via the carrier's 5G.

Halo, however, can also operate on LTE and will have to in 5G coverage gaps, although the company aims to minimize the number of switches.

"I do think T-Mobile has a head start because their [midband 5G] network is already commercially available, but even they need to improve coverage compared to where it is today," said Sag.

Entner, meanwhile, noted that any consumer service won't do well.

"For these products to be successful, the consumer would want them to run on all carriers and not just on, say, T-Mobile," he said. "With that, you automatically exclude two-thirds of the customer base."

Waiting on midband

AT&T and Verizon, meanwhile, are still working towards launching their own midband 5G service on the C-band spectrum they now hold. For now, apps, services and gadgets looking to run on 5G that's materially faster and more responsive than their 4G must limit themselves to millimeter-wave 5G with exponentially less availability.

AT&T launched its 5G Innovation Studio April 8 to build on earlier efforts at its AT&T Foundry. That shop does not style itself as a startup nest; "it's not an incubator," publicist Scott Huscher said.

But the list of companies to have developed and tested products there includes such relative newcomers as Tel Aviv-based Vorpal, which is working to scale up its VigilAir drone identification and tracking services by using Microsoft's Azure edge computing on AT&T's 5G to push this work out towards its sensor hardware.

But as long as AT&T's only 5G to offer a serious boost over 4G in terms of speed and latency is a millimeter-wave service that remains scarcer than Verizon's, the real-world utility of startups relying on it likely will be limited.

Verizon, meanwhile, has been at this for longer than either of its rivals, having launched the first of its 5G Labs back in 2017, a full year before any consumer could get a 5G connection from the carrier. Last year, it opened a separate 5G Studio in Brooklyn as a partnership with Newlab.

Looking for payoffs

The startups that "graduated" from the latter in 2020 and 2021 have delivered such photogenic results as the 5G-enabled industrial robots – one with four legs, another on wheels – from Ghost Robotics that the Philadelphia firm debuted at MWC Barcelona this summer.

In factory-floor applications like that, the limited scope of millimeter-wave 5G need not be an issue. Nor is having a service catered to or only available from one carrier, Entner said.

"Here you have that client that typically isn't in a multi-carrier environment," he said. "That then becomes much much more interesting."

(Note that all three carriers face competition from more specialized operators building private 5G networks for these closed settings.)

But another 5G Studio project, Brooklyn-based EVPassport's demonstration of using millimeter-wave 5G to orchestrate power flow across a fleet of electric-vehicle charging stations, would seem to be of limited utility unless millimeter-wave coverage can flourish outside of a limited number of dense, urban areas.

At all three carriers, the biggest payoffs for 5G apps, gadgets and services await the widespread deployment of standalone 5G from the nationwide carriers with support for network slicing that can provide optimized bandwidth and edge-compute capability for individual customers. So far, only T-Mobile has launched standalone 5G, and only in a limited form that does not yet support network slices.

"We need a fully capable 5G standalone core, and not a 5G standalone core with a subset of the capability," said Entner.

Sag agreed: "I think private 5G networks are going to be relatively small and spotty and the real interesting applications of 5G for private use will come from standalone 5G and network slicing and how operators make those custom services available to their customers."

— Rob Pegoraro, special to Light Reading. Follow him @robpegoraro.

About the Author(s)

Rob Pegoraro

Contributor, Light Reading

Rob Pegoraro covers telecom, computers, gadgets, apps, and other things that beep or blink from the D.C. area since the mid-1990s. In addition to right here, you can find his work at such places as USA Today, Fast Company and Wirecutter, you can e-mail him at [email protected], find him on Twitter as @robpegoraro, and read more at robpegoraro.com.

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