Verizon 5G lab tunes up robots and medical tech heading your way

Our 5G future isn't just about smartphone speeds. Here's how it's shaping up.

Jon Skillings Editorial director
Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET, where he's worked since 2000. A born browser of dictionaries, he honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS, AI and 5G to James Bond, aircraft, astronauts, brass instruments and music streaming services.
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Jon Skillings
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At Verizon's 5G lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, robotics company RealBotics demonstrates how 5G and edge computing combine to enable real-time VR training for factory employees.

Jon Skillings/CNET

When 5G arrives in force, it won't just be for you. It'll be for the robots , too.

Or maybe more precisely, for you and the robots working together. That was the point of one of the demonstrations Thursday at Verizon's 5G lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a knee-high humanoid robot trundled up and down several steps and along the length of a wooden platform. It's a scale model of a person-size robot intended to help rescue people trapped in life-threatening situations.

You may have heard that 5G networks are fast, but there's more to it than that. They're also all about low latency -- getting rid of the lag time that can make 4G and older networks stutter or just not be up to high-intensity tasks.

Humanoid robot from University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

A robot from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, stands tall after a 5G-powered walk.

Jon Skillings/CNET

"With 5G, the robot and the operator can communicate instantly," said Yan Gu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

But 5G, like that little robot, still has a lot of growing to do.

Long hyped, the next-generation wireless technology is only now just starting to find its way into the real world. In the US, Verizon and AT&T , the nation's two biggest wireless carriers, have switched on mobile 5G networks in only a small handful of locations. Sprint just turned on its network in four cities at the end of May, right about the same time that wireless carrier EE became the UK's first 5G provider.

Verizon customers looking to experience the zippiness of 5G right now will have to head to Chicago or Minneapolis, and then find the right street corners -- plus buy one of the very few 5G-capable phones out there at the moment. By the end of this year, you won't have to look quite so hard. Verizon plans to double the coverage area in those two cities, and also drop 5G into 30 additional cities. (In addition, the company has a 5G home service in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento, California.)

Watch this: We tested Verizon's new 5G network

CNET's Jessica Dolcourt tested the performance of the Chicago network with a Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, and found it "insanely fast." She downloaded Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel -- 10 hours of 4K footage -- in less than 5 minutes, and the nearly 2-hour movie Wine Country in just over 8 seconds, blowing away a 4G phone working on the same tasks.

More than speed

There's a lot more to 5G than giving you instant gratification on your phone.

"If the only thing we could do with 5G is faster downloads, we've missed the boat," Nicki Palmer, Verizon's head of product and technology development, said at the demo Thursday. "5G needs to be different."

Nicki Palmer, Verizon's head of product and technology development

Verizon's Nicki Palmer says the company's 5G lab demo offers a look at "a little bit of the future."

Jon Skillings/CNET

The bigger goal, Palmer said, is to enable whole new experiences -- in education, for instance, transporting someone who's studying glaciers to an actual glacier via virtual reality or a holographic experience that's not possible today.

Which brings us back to low latency, a key part of the whole package that is 5G. When the next generation matures eventually, a whole array of technologies will be able to blossom in ways that today's 4G networks don't allow -- cars communicating with each other and with sensors on a highway or city streets at speed, for instance. The internet of things becomes a lot more than just you checking in with your Nest thermostat or an August smart doorbell. Soldiers and first responders get better, faster situational awareness.

Or your doctor could do surgery on you while a specialist thousands of miles away looks on and provides expertise in real time.

Platforms from remote surgery to mixed reality and autonomous cars are expected to thrive. "They just get better with 5G," said Christian Guirnalda, director of Verizon's 5G Labs.

To help drive that point home, Verizon's demo before a group of journalists showcased a small array of projects experimenting with 5G in health care, manufacturing and public safety, tapping into the company's Ultra Wideband service. It was a showcase of winners of the company's 5G Robotics Challenge and other partners working in the Cambridge facility.

The Cambridge lab, set in a colonial-style brick building on a leafy side street nestled next to the Harvard University campus, is one of five that the company's currently operating. The others are in New York; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; and Palo Alto, California.

A product manager at Proximie shows how 5G helps bring AR capabilities to telemedicine.

A product manager at Proximie shows how 5G helps bring AR capabilities to telemedicine.

Jon Skillings/CNET

With a Verizon 5G small cell lurking overhead, software maker Proximie, based in Bedford, Massachusetts, demonstrated its cloud-based, augmented reality-capable telemedicine platform on a high-resolution screen with multiple livestreams -- as many as three upload and six download streams running at about 10 to 12 megabits per second each.

A Proximie product manager moved her hand across a blank tabletop in front of a camera, and the screens showed the hand overlaid on a cutaway model of a mock patient's midsection. It illustrated how a doctor in LA could provide AR input to a surgeon performing an operation in New York without lag or dropped signal. The system could also allow, say, radiology images to be matched up with the view of the patient.

"Once it's rolled out, it's gonna change the game," said Auri Vizgaitis, Proximie's lead software architect.

Patience needed

And there's the rub. It's likely to be well into 2020 before 5G offers anything approaching widespread coverage. Carriers are still in the early days of building out their networks, starting with metropolitan areas. Even there, many of the deployments feel like souped-up Wi-Fi hotspots.

Never mind how long it might take 5G to get out into the suburbs and rural areas.

Southie Autonomy CEO Rahul Chipalkatty takes advantage of the wireless at Verizon's 5G lab.

Southie Autonomy CEO Rahul Chipalkatty takes advantage of the wireless at Verizon's 5G lab.

Jon Skillings

And then there's the question of what type of 5G signals are available. Verizon, like AT&T, has focused on what's known as millimeter wave spectrum, which is fast but has a limited range and can have trouble with walls and even foliage. Carriers in Europe and Asia, along with Sprint and T-Mobile in the US, have been using sub-6GHz airwaves for slower but more reliable coverage.

Over time, Palmer said, Verizon will incorporate other 5G spectrum into its service.

Here's another thing that the teams at Thursday's demo are looking forward to with 5G: Devices in the field -- like UMass Lowell's rescue robot -- won't have to pack a lot of computing power themselves, meaning they can be lighter and enjoy longer battery life. They'll be relying on "edge computing," servers elsewhere that can do heavy-duty work, like handling HD video and sensor processing.

"5G lets us get more computing off the device," said Rahul Chipalkatty, CEO of Boston-based robotics software maker Southie Autonomy.

But even with these industrial applications in mind, there's still a spot for 5G-enabled smartphones. Pittsburgh-based robotics company RealBotics demonstrated how 5G could help get factory employees up to speed on managing robots, through a combination of smartphone speed, low latency, HD video and augmented reality via edge computing.

The advances these companies are envisioning -- highly capable autonomous cars, far-flung surgeons collaborating in real time, the internet of things working in high gear -- are the future that 5G's been dangling in front of us for a while now, and probably will for some time still to come.

"It will exist at some point in the future," said Palmer. "This lab is about how do you innovate on top of that network."

Originally published June 1, at 5 a.m. PT.
Update, June 3 at 7:18 a.m.: Added more background information.

Correction, June 1 at 3:27 p.m.: The initial version of this story misstated the number of Verizon's 5G labs. There are five total.

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