•T-Mobile US introduced a new incubator program designed to foster 5G innovation. Operators and networking vendors are increasingly in the business of seeding 5G innovation.
•The growing number of 5G innovation hubs highlights the growing challenge facing mobile operators hoping to monetize expensive 5G network buildouts.
Mobile operator T-Mobile US announced a new “5G Connected Future” incubator program in February that combines technology, academia, “Curiosity,” and seed money, in a bid to foster new revenue-generating 5G applications.
T-Mobile will collaborate with the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) on the program, which represents an expansion of T-Mobile’s Accelerator program. T-Mobile reports it has worked with 67 startup companies that have raised over $50 million in funding since participating in the Accelerator program, all focused on building immersive 5G-based applications such as augmented/virtual reality applications, holographic displays, and robotics.
The new 5G “Curiosity Lab” is located in a 500-acre smart city technology park in an Atlanta suburb where more than 8,000 people live and/or work. The facility features a 25,000-square-foot Innovation Center and a three-mile autonomous vehicle test track. From a network perspective, the lab is supported by its own network operations center (NOC), dedicated short range communications (DSRC) units, smart poles, and dedicated fiber. T-Mobile expects developers to use the ample space to build and test new 5G use cases such as autonomous vehicles, robotics, industrial drone applications, mixed reality training and entertainment, remote medical care, and personal health and fitness wearables.
While the new lab is impressive, T-Mobile is by no means the only operator taking matters into its own hands in trying to foster a thriving – and more profitable – 5G ecosystem:
• AT&T opened a 5G R&D lab with Purdue College of Engineering in the so-called “Indiana 5G Zone” in December 2020. The company also focuses on 5G in manufacturing at its 5G “Innovation Zone,” in conjunction with Samsung’s Austin semiconductor facility.
• Verizon offers six 5G labs – five in the U.S. and one in London – as well as a number of 5G Innovation Hubs built on college campuses such as at the University of Illinois Research Park. Like T-Mobile, Verizon offers grant funding to 5G application developers to test prototypes on their network.
• Most of the larger European operators have also been actively building out their 5G innovation centers. Most recently, Orange announced a 5G Labs initiative that includes plans to open seven 5G labs in France as well as two additional European sites in 2021. Orange joins Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, and other operators in this regard.
• A host of operators in Asian markets earliest to deploy 5G, including Korea, China, Japan, and Australia, have announced similar labs or innovation hubs.
Even without operator sponsorship, supporting vendors have been active in building out their own 5G labs as a way to move toward a more profitable 5G ecosystem. In July 2020, for example, HPE, which sells IT enterprise infrastructure, unveiled its 5G Lab, a test and development environment where telcos and partners can validate and integrate 5G network solutions. That lab has attracted the support of a number of vendors, including Intel, IBM (Red Hat), Microsoft (Affirmed Networks), Nokia, Amdocs (Openet), and Casa Systems.
And in December, consulting and systems integration services firm Capgemini took that concept one step further by introducing a “5G Lab-as-a-Service” offering for network operators, enterprises and equipment manufacturers. The lab, based in Fundão, Portugal, provides cloud-based prototyping, design, development, and a testing and validation environment for new 5G proofs-of-concept and pilot projects. The lab’s physical and virtual resources can be accessed remotely – an important feature in an environment in which COVID-19 still lingers.
All of this activity – while positive for the industry – does point to an ongoing “elephant in the room” issue impacting mobile operators and their vendors: for all the hype surrounding 5G, meaningful revenue streams remain elusive.