5G hype has been out of control and a lot of people are wondering where the 5G breakthrough innovations are going to come from. The truth is, 5G developer innovation has been underwhelming so far, said T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray.

5G will “never live up to its full potential if the carriers don’t get out of the way,” Ray said during T-Mobile’s staged event Wednesday to announce a series of efforts designed to kick-start 5G innovation.

T-Mobile brought up a lot of the same complaints that developers have expressed for years. Carriers are slow and their bureaucracies are too much to navigate for entrepreneurs who want to move fast and furious. Being the self-acclaimed “un-carrier,” T-Mobile doesn’t want to run with that crowd.

While developing for 5G should be easy, it’s not, Ray said. Carriers’ developer programs were created for companies “just like them – massive enterprises with the resources and time to navigate a complicated maze of carrier processes and bureaucratic BS. That’s not how most innovators or entrepreneurs work,” he said during the event. 

When building for wireless, developers should expect a Silicon Valley model, he added. “But instead, they find a carrier bureaucracy straight out of Basking Ridge, New Jersey,” he said, pointing directly at the site of Verizon’s headquarters. Support is limited, collaboration is rare and certification takes “an eternity,” – all things that are stifling 5G’s potential, he said.  

The “un-carrier” highlighted a few different initiatives that it’s undertaking: 

  • T-Mobile DevEdge is a new developer platform designed to democratize access to the network for any developer to create connected solutions. A Developer Kit will enable developers to connect to the network immediately “with no strings attached.” According to T-Mobile, there are no out-of-pocket costs, testing hardware or lengthy build times for these kits. Dev Kits will be available this summer.
  • The Tech Experience 5G Hub is a new 24,000-square-foot technology innovation center, located just outside of Seattle and next door to T-Mobile’s National Technology Lab. At the 5G Hub, partners of all sizes can access new 5G capabilities working alongside T-Mobile engineers.  
  • The T-Mobile Accelerator, T-Mobile’s incubator for 5G innovators, is the lead 5G partner in North America for Qualcomm Technologies’ Snapdragon Spaces XR Developer Platform. T-Mobile is also teaming up with Deutsche Telekom and five new partners – Beem, VictoryXR, Mawari, Volucap and Immersiv.io – to build new consumer experiences for AR glasses.  
  • T-Mobile Ventures is the company’s 5G-focused fund. It’s investing in SignalWire, an early leader in software-defined telecom, enabling voice, video and messaging APIs for developers to create modern communications applications. It’s also investing in Spectro Cloud, a Kubernetes enterprise management platform.

T-Mobile isn’t saying how much funding it’s making available through T-Mobile Ventures or how much it’s investing in the Tech Experience Hub.

In for the long haul

The announcement Wednesday wasn’t just a one-time thing or a bunch of slick PowerPoints about what T-Mobile plans to do, according to John Saw, EVP of Advanced & Emerging Technologies. “We have been working the last two years,” since the close of the merger with Sprint, with a lot of start-ups and innovators, he told Fierce.

One example is what T-Mobile has been doing with the Seattle Mariners, which play at T-Mobile Park in Seattle. Those watching the video got a glimpse of John Stanton, founder of T-Mobile’s predecessors Western Wireless and VoiceStream, talking about the Mariners and the apps that T-Mobile is making available for fans. Stanton is chairman of the Mariners.  

“We wanted to showcase the future of sports watching by bringing augmented reality to the fan experience,” Saw said. Mariners fans at the ball park can put on a pair of glasses and watch the game but at the same time, they can see stats about the players in real time. All of that is only enabled by 5G, he explained.  

It all comes down to partners “wanting to work with us because we actually have a real 5G network” where they can showcase their capabilities, Saw said. “We’re not stopping there. We’re also getting noticed by big corporations,” and the announcement with Disney is an example of that. T-Mobile is working with Disney StudioLAB on new storytelling capabilities, including mixed reality and virtual presence.

It’s also expanding a deal with Red Bull to bring live action sports viewing to the next level. For example, Ray pointed out, the types of experiences they’re showing are using drones to show athletes jumping off a cliff in the middle of nowhere – as opposed to showing sports in a big stadium equipped with millimeter wave.

As for 5G technologies that its rivals don’t yet have, T-Mobile will be making those available to developers as well, Ray told Fierce.

T-Mobile doesn’t have a network slicing functionality that’s commercially launched, but the idea is to give developers early access to that kind of expertise. “They’re going to get early access to those capabilities,” Ray said. Private networks are another example. “There are a lot of things in the Hub that they can leverage.”

As the only one with a commercially launched Standalone (SA) 5G architecture serving customers today in the U.S., “we’re working very hard on all of the features and capabilities” that allows, with “slicing being a key one,” Ray said.

It’s worth noting that this endeavor is about developers. Vendors hawking new equipment like antennas for the radio network go through a separate vetting/evaluation process, which happens to be next door to the Hub.

What’s different now?

Executives from all the U.S. carriers talk about the innovation that came from 4G LTE and how nobody thought about Uber or Airbnb until LTE came along and enabled these kinds of apps. Carriers don’t have all the smarts, so they’re relying on developers to think of the next best thing for 5G. “That’s why all these innovation centers have popped up,” said William Ho, principal analyst at 556 Ventures.

It’s kind of the same playbook as 4G, but they’ve presumably learned some lessons from the 4G era. Operators are supplying the pipe to get to the consumers, but they don’t want to be a dumb pipe.

T-Mobile, for one, is trying to differentiate by saying they’re easier to work with than Verizon, Ho noted.

“There is this kind of PR thing going on,” where they’re saying “we’re attuned to the tech community and we’re going to be faster in getting you resources,” and such. The message is, “if it’s good innovation, it will hit the market and we’re going to help you,” he said. 

The “innovators” could be the stereotypical folks in a garage or they could be VC-funded groups that want to work with multiple carriers. Verizon has its Mobile Edge Compute (MEC) focus and that’s where it’s putting a lot of focus.

“Everybody’s got their own little twist on innovation,” Ho said.

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