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The U.S. is finally catching up on wireless Internet

January 20, 2022, 5:51 PM UTC

After a few years of frustrating delays and a high-profile government spat, higher-speed 5G wireless Internet finally came online for some U.S. customers.

Let this be the last time it takes so long.

AT&T and Verizon flipped on their C-band 5G service in some cities on Wednesday, putting into action their $69 billion investment in the optimized wireless Internet spectrum. The C-band service is expected to provide download speeds several times faster than current 5G service, which barely performed better than 4G LTE. (Reuters offers a great explainer of C-band 5G here.)

AT&T officials said they planned to roll out C-band 5G in eight metro areas Wednesday as part of a gradual introduction to about 70 million customers, while Verizon said it expects about 100 million customers to gain access this month. 

For now, the service will be limited to customers with some newer smartphones and tablets, though software updates are expected to help bring more devices online later this year. The initial batch of eligible phones includes the iPhone 12 and 13 series and the Samsung Galaxy S21 line, plus Google Pixel 6 series phones with AT&T service.

The arrival of C-band 5G marks a major milestone for the U.S.’ wireless Internet infrastructure, which has lagged well behind other highly developed nations. While the U.S. leads the globe in 5G availability, the speed of that service has been relatively poor, according to a report from Speedtest by Ookla, which tracks Internet quality across the globe. 

In the third quarter of 2021, the U.S.’ median 5G download speed clocked in at 93.7 megabits per second (Mbps), per Speedtest. 

Many of the U.S.’ industrialized competitors blew past that speed, including South Korea (492.5 Mbps), China (299 Mbps), the UK (184.2 Mbps), and Japan (167.8 Mbps). The U.S. figures to catch up quickly, with The Verge reporting that many Verizon users clocked download speeds ranging from 200 Mbps to 400 Mbps on Wednesday.

The consequences of slower wireless speeds go well beyond spotty commercial video streaming and gaming. As the Congressional Research Service noted last year, wireless service will prove vital to the development of self-driving cars, smart homes, high-tech robotics, autonomous farming machinery, and numerous military capabilities.

To date, the U.S.’ comparatively slow rollout of 5G hasn’t enormously hampered the nation’s technological standing—though it has paid a bit of a diplomatic price. Look no further than the political capital spent by President Donald Trump’s administration on hobbling Huawei’s effort to gain a 5G foothold outside of China.

But lessons should be learned from the U.S. falling behind on 5G. The Wall Street Journal laid out many of them in a detailed report last year: a lack of investment in expensive network equipment; a dearth of domestically manufactured parts for equipment; and uncertainty around revenue streams tied to commercial 5G. Solutions likely entail additional government spending in wireless infrastructure—an approach other countries have taken as the U.S. continues to largely rely on open markets.

The U.S. has been fortunate that its slow 5G uptake hasn’t dramatically set the country back on economic and national security fronts. But as the world becomes ever more Internet-connected and new wireless technologies evolve, America might not be so lucky next time.

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Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Blitzing the ad companies. The European Union Parliament’s final version of its proposed digital rules overhaul now includes a ban on Google, Facebook, and other advertisers from using certain personal data to drive their targeted ad businesses. Members of Parliament voted Wednesday to add a provision that would outlaw the use of sexual orientation, religious beliefs, political affiliation, and other identifying information when advertisers develop marketing plans for Internet users. The European Union Council, which represents the EU’s 27 governments, still must sign off on the proposal in the coming months.

Lights, camera, action. In her first T.V. interview since taking over the Federal Trade Commission, Chair Lina Khan emphasized her commitment to curbing the power of the U.S.’ largest tech companies and scrutinizing billion-dollar mergers for potential antitrust violations, CNBC reported Wednesday. Khan said the FTC faces resource challenges that make it harder to tangle with deep-powered Silicon Valley players, but the commission will move aggressively and judiciously on a path toward stronger antitrust enforcement. Khan did not voice support for specific antitrust legislation moving through Congress, though she backed additional resources and legal power for the FTC.

No letting up. The Chinese Communist Party said Thursday that it has no plans to scale back its crackdown on the republic’s largest tech companies, many of which have faced fines, government directives, and heightened regulatory scrutiny over the past 12-plus months, Bloomberg reported. A communique released after a meeting of the party’s top anti-corruption group stated the government will continue its wide-ranging intervention into the tech, financial, and education sectors. The strategy is part of President Xi Jinping’s effort to redistribute wealth and consolidate government power following a period of economic and technological growth.

That story’s gonna cost you. Instagram launched a limited subscription service Wednesday that allows selected creators the opportunity to charge users for their content, joining several other social media platforms that offer a similar option, TechCrunch reported. Instagram chose 10 creators for the first test of its subscription service, with plans to add others over the next few months. The platform does not plan to take a cut of creators’ revenue this year. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Patreon, among others, already provide creator-driven subscription options, with most platforms taking a percentage of revenues.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

A domino effect? Microsoft’s stunning announcement of plans to buy video game developer Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion has the M&A industry buzzing about potential responses from Xbox competitors, Insider reported Thursday. Focus now turns, in particular, to PlayStation parent Sony and whether it might pair well with several of the industry’s largest developers. Game on.

From the article:

Experts predict the tieup could entice gaming rival Sony to fight back by buying video game creators like Electronic Arts, known for "The Sims" and its popular EA Sports games. France's Ubisoft, which creates well-known action franchises like "Assassin's Creed," is another potential target, according to analysts focused on gaming and technology.

3D content creator Unity would also pair well with gaming companies like Sony looking for tools to create metaverse worlds, the analysts said. Online platform Roblox could also come into play, but it may be better suited to a smaller player looking to grow its exposure to gaming, they said.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

How Intel squandered the boom in chip demand and lost its semiconductor crown, by Eamon Barrett

The inventor of Sony’s PlayStation has no time for the metaverse or VR headsets, by Takashi Mochizuki, Yuri Furukawa, and Bloomberg

Tom Brady’s Autograph—which helps celebrities launch their own NFTs—just raised $170 million from Silicon Valley, by Yueqi Yang and Bloomberg

The pandemic is having a lasting impact on job growth, according to new Indeed report, by Colin Lodewick

Serena Williams joins Sorare’s board in effort to make Web 3 more inclusive, by Jane Thier

Men are creating AI girlfriends, verbally abusing them, and bragging about it on Reddit, by Amiah Taylor

The tech talent gap is a self-inflicted wound, by Julie Elberfeld

BEFORE YOU GO

Back to the future. Amazon’s counterintuitive dip into the brick-and-mortar business took another step Thursday. The nation’s largest e-commerce company will open a clothing store in a Los Angeles suburb later this year, occupying a retail space about as large as your typical T.J. Maxx, CNBC reported. Amazon plans to outfit the store with high-tech conveniences, such as QR codes attached to items that will show more size and color options. Watch your back, Gap.

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