Verizon documentary aims to answer: Who needs 5G?

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In the early days it was about educating the ecosystem about what 5G can do; today it’s about consumers. (Getty Images)(GettyImages)

A Verizon documentary debuted this week that aims to show the potential of its next-generation network, with a look at companies developing innovative applications enabled by 5G.

The film, titled Speed of Thought, is available on Amazon Prime and Peacock streaming services, as well as Verizon Fios on demand. Directed by Emmy award-winning documentary film-maker Mila Aung-Thwin, the film was “produced in partnership with Verizon,” according to the carrier. Verizon EVP Chief Marketing Officer Diego Scotti and SVP Chief Creative Officer Andrew McKechnie are executive producers. At just under an hour long, it’s a high-quality production – not your average YouTube video. 

Disclaimer: This is not a film review.

That said, in an unscientific poll of this reporter’s significant other (who, granted, routinely hears the word “5G” probably more than he’d like) the takeaway was this: 5G has more benefits than just being able to download something really fast on my phone.

That speaks to the main goal of the documentary: to help give the general consumer a better understanding of 5G’s potential, beyond faster speeds and videos on a smartphone, according to Verizon VP of Product Innovation Sanyogita Shamsunder.

In the early days it was about educating the ecosystem about what 5G can do; today it’s about consumers.

“Because otherwise, radio waves are something that you can’t see,” she said. “This was a way to kind of show how powerful it can be with all of the other technologies around us that are maturing and are ready for that type of connectivity 5G brings.”

Technologies and companies featured in the film alongside 5G include: an augmented reality-enabled mask that in the future could help firefighters navigate smokey environments (Qwake Technologies); tailored AR experiences that help students in underserved communities learn about the history of civil rights through immersive learning rather than textbooks (Movers and Shakers); and a test program in the city of Sacramento with 5G-connected cameras for pedestrian and traffic safety.  

Another highlight is medical robotics company Corindus, which used 5G to complete a robotic-assisted test heart procedure in San Francisco from a control station in Boston. While a remote procedure could already take place fairly easily right now, the goal is to reach locations that have limited or no on-site options for people who have had a heart attack or stroke.

A different challenge for Verizon’s 5G

Verizon started early on 5G but availability of its Ultra Wideband 5G service is still extremely limited. Working in new frequency bands comes with new challenges, both for network and services. 

When 4G was coming online, the smartphone concept was still fairly new and the main challenge at the time was building handsets capable of supporting so many new applications, according to Shamsunder (she oversaw the launch of Verizon’s first LTE smartphone). Network-wise 3G had already provided the industry with many tools for building out low-band networks.

“Overall [4G] was a relatively well-understood type of technology,” Shamsunder said, but ushered in previously unthought of consumer uses, like Uber. 

Things are different when it comes to 5G.

For 5G, Verizon in particular started its rollout using new and very high millimeter wave (mmWave) bands – 28 GHz so far, but also 39 GHz. With higher frequencies comes “more real-estate,” as Shamsunder put it, or bandwidth – along with fairly well-known propagation limitations.

“That was the new challenge for 5G, at least for the Verizon version of 5G,” she noted, which the carrier started working on five years ago.

Looking at competitors like T-Mobile and AT&T that have rolled out nationwide 5G using low-band 600 MHz and 850 MHz respectively, “there’s really no challenge.”

“It’s physics,” she said. “You have to go to high frequencies to get the high bandwidth, low frequencies with 5G will look very similar to 4G.”

The documentary’s debut happened to come one day after executives at T-Mobile said they plan to lead the 5G era – as Verizon did in 4G – while Verizon and AT&T try to play catch-up.

T-Mobile already claims nationwide 5G coverage with its low-band 600 MHz spectrum, and is quickly deploying key mid-band 2.5 GHz spectrum. While T-Mobile regularly bashes Verizon for its mmWave approach and limited rollout, T-Mobile has its own mmWave spectrum it plans to eventually layer on top for 5G.

Verizon’s promised nationwide coverage this year, using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology to share existing LTE spectrum resources for its own low-band 5G as it waits to acquire more mid-band spectrum. 

RELATED: Verizon’s DSS launch remains mystery, but 5G iPhone looms large

To the point of Verizon educating consumers through the documentary, the carrier wants, and likely needs, to get the word out about what 5G and high-band spectrum can do (although there is actually minimal focus on the mmWave factor in the film).

Recent survey data from NPD’s Connected Intelligence found that while nine out of 10 consumers were aware of 5G networks, only 18% had heard of and understand the difference between the different types of spectrum bands carriers are using.

To be sure, Verizon’s more than 90 million consumer wireless customers represent a huge base for 5G. Shamsunder cited 5G consumer opportunities like AR, 360-video, and high-quality live streaming.

“But what 5G does is it also opens up enterprise opportunities, especially when combined with mobile edge compute,” she said, which is a focus in Speed of Thought. That’s because of the distributed architecture in 5G networks, enabling data processing closer to the edge for more speed and lower-latency needed for applications, like for example, the minimally invasive remote heart procedure.  

Working with the ecosystem also is key, and Verizon has a number of partnerships, including AWS for mobile edge compute.

“Obviously we can’t build everything,” Shamsunder said.

What she’s most excited about currently is high-quality AR from a phone or through a VR headset. “Applications that are very realistic and content that is very quality and high fidelity.” 

RELATED: Verizon executive says 5G edge computing zones will be a game changer

AR content today is limited by factors like what can be rendered on the device and how much storage, and lower bandwidth on the network limits what quality is available – with 5G things will start to look different, she said.

“In a few years I’m expecting to have interfaces that I don’t necessarily have to use a phone interface, but there will be AR glasses that will change how we interact with the world,” she said.

More near-term and for enterprise, she pointed to cameras, video, and computer and machine vision. For example, 5G can be used for better security, managing inventory on store shelves or detecting impurities in manufacturing.

As the film aims to portray the potential of 5G, for Shamsunder one of the challenges is picking and choosing which of the many 5G opportunities to go after.

So, while the documentary might not make a consumer run out and buy a 5G smartphone (unscientific poll response was a resounding “No”), that isn’t really the aim. 

Instead it introduces 5G through the eyes of developers coming up with creative ideas and solutions that can ultimately help society. That could be a good thing as carriers also keep their eyes out for paths that could lead to returns on their massive 5G network investments.

Check out a trailer here.