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5G phones are here but there’s no rush to upgrade – TechCrunch

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This year’s Mobile World Congress — the CES for Android device makers — was awash with 5G handsets.

The world’s No.1 smartphone seller by marketshare, Samsung, got out ahead with a standalone launch event in San Francisco, showing off two 5G devices, just before fast-following Android rivals popped out their own 5G phones at launch events across Barcelona this week.

We’ve rounded up all these 5G handset launches here. Prices range from an eye-popping $2,600 for Huawei’s foldable phabet-to-tablet Mate X — and an equally eye-watering $1,980 for Samsung’s Galaxy Fold; another 5G handset that bends — to a rather more reasonable $680 for Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G, albeit the device is otherwise mid-tier. Other prices for 5G phones announced this week remain tbc.

Android OEMs are clearly hoping the hype around next-gen mobile networks can work a little marketing magic and kick-start stalled smartphone growth. Especially with reports suggesting Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until at least next year. So 5G is a space Android OEMs alone get to own for a while.

Chipmaker Qualcomm, which is embroiled in a bitter patent battle with Apple, was also on stage in Barcelona to support Xiaomi’s 5G phone launch — loudly claiming the next-gen tech is coming fast and will enhance “everything”.

“We like to work with companies like Xiaomi to take risks,” lavished Qualcomm’s president Cristiano Amon upon his hosts, using 5G uptake to jibe at Apple by implication. “When we look at the opportunity ahead of us for 5G we see an opportunity to create winners.”

Despite the heavy hype, Xiaomi’s on stage demo — which it claimed was the first live 5G video call outside China — seemed oddly staged and was not exactly lacking in latency.

“Real 5G — not fake 5G!” finished Donovan Sung, the Chinese OEM’s director of product management. As a 5G sales pitch it was all very underwhelming. Much more ‘so what’ than ‘must have’.

Whether 5G marketing hype alone will convince consumers it’s past time to upgrade seems highly unlikely.

Phones sell on features rather than connectivity per se, and — whatever Qualcomm claims — 5G is being soft-launched into the market by cash-constrained carriers whose boom times lie behind them, i.e. before over-the-top players had gobbled their messaging revenues and monopolized consumer eyeballs.

All of which makes 5G an incremental consumer upgrade proposition in the near to medium term.

Use-cases for the next-gen network tech, which is touted as able to support speeds up to 100x faster than LTE and deliver latency of just a few milliseconds (as well as connecting many more devices per cell site), are also still being formulated, let alone apps and services created to leverage 5G.

But selling a network upgrade to consumers by claiming the killer apps are going to be amazing but you just can’t show them any yet is as tough as trying to make theatre out of a marginally less janky video call.

“5G could potentially help [spark smartphone growth] in a couple of years as price points lower, and availability expands, but even that might not see growth rates similar to the transition to 3G and 4G,” suggests Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, writing in a blog post discussing Samsung’s strategy with its latest device launches.

“This is not because 5G is not important, but because it is incremental when it comes to phones and it will be other devices that will deliver on experiences, we did not even think were possible. Consumers might end up, therefore, sharing their budget more than they did during the rise of smartphones.”

The ‘problem’ for 5G — if we can call it that — is that 4G/LTE networks are capably delivering all the stuff consumers love right now: Games, apps and video. Which means that for the vast majority of consumers there’s simply no reason to rush to shell out for a ‘5G-ready’ handset. Not if 5G is all the innovation it’s got going for it.

LG V50 ThinQ 5G with a dual screen accessory for gaming

Use cases such as better AR/VR are also a tough sell given how weak consumer demand has generally been on those fronts (with the odd branded exception).

The barebones reality is that commercial 5G networks are as rare as hen’s teeth right now, outside a few limited geographical locations in the U.S. and Asia. And 5G will remain a very patchy patchwork for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, it may take a very long time indeed to achieve nationwide coverage in many countries, if 5G even ends up stretching right to all those edges. (Alternative technologies do also exist which could help fill in gaps where the ROI just isn’t there for 5G.)

So again consumers buying phones with the puffed up idea of being able to tap into 5G right here, right now (Qualcomm claimed 2019 is going to be “the year of 5G!”) will find themselves limited to just a handful of urban locations around the world.

Analysts are clear that 5G rollouts, while coming, are going to be measured and targeted as carriers approach what’s touted as a multi-industry-transforming wireless technology cautiously, with an eye on their capex and while simultaneously trying to figure out how best to restructure their businesses to engage with all the partners they’ll need to forge business relations with, across industries, in order to successfully sell 5G’s transformative potential to all sorts of enterprises — and lock onto “the sweep spot where 5G makes sense”.

Enterprise rollouts therefore look likely to be prioritized over consumer 5G — as was the case for 5G launches in South Korea at the back end of last year.

“4G was a lot more driven by the consumer side and there was an understanding that you were going for national coverage that was never really a question and you were delivering on the data promise that 3G never really delivered… so there was a gap of technology that needed to be filled. With 5G it’s much less clear,” says Gartner’s Sylvain Fabre, discussing the tech’s hype and the reality with TechCrunch ahead of MWC.

“4G’s very good, you have multiple networks that are Gbps or more and that’s continuing to increase on the downlink with multiple carrier aggregation… and other densification schemes. So 5G doesn’t… have as gap as big to fill. It’s great but again it’s applicability of where it’s uniquely positioned is kind of like a very narrow niche at the moment.”

“It’s such a step change that the real power of 5G is actually in creating new business models using network slicing — allocation of particular aspects of the network to a particular use-case,” Forrester analyst Dan Bieler also tells us. “All of this requires some rethinking of what connectivity means for an enterprise customer or for the consumer.

“And telco sales people, the telco go-to-market approach is not based on selling use-cases, mostly — it’s selling technologies. So this is a significant shift for the average telco distribution channel to go through. And I would believe this will hold back a lot of the 5G ambitions for the medium term.”

To be clear, carriers are now actively kicking the tyres of 5G, after years of lead-in hype, and grappling with technical challenges around how best to upgrade their existing networks to add in and build out 5G.

Many are running pilots and testing what works and what doesn’t, such as where to place antennas to get the most reliable signal and so on. And a few have put a toe in the water with commercial launches (globally there are 23 networks with “some form of live 5G in their commercial networks” at this point, according to Fabre.)

But at the same time 5G network standards are yet to be fully finalized so the core technology is not 100% fully baked. And with it being early days “there’s still a long way to go before we have a real significant impact of 5G type of services”, as Bieler puts it. 

There’s also spectrum availability to factor in and the cost of acquiring the necessary spectrum. As well as the time required to clear and prepare it for commercial use. (On spectrum, government policy is critical to making things happen quickly (or not). So that’s yet another factor moderating how quickly 5G networks can be built out.)

And despite some wishful thinking industry noises at MWC this week — calling for governments to ‘support digitization at scale’ by handing out spectrum for free (uhhhh, yeah right) — that’s really just whistling into the wind.

Rolling out 5G networks is undoubtedly going to be very expensive, at a time when carriers’ businesses are already faced with rising costs (from increasing data consumption) and subdued revenue growth forecasts.

“The world now works on data” and telcos are “at core of this change”, as one carrier CEO — Singtel’s Chua Sock Koong — put it in an MWC keynote in which she delved into the opportunities and challenges for operators “as we go from traditional connectivity to a new age of intelligent connectivity”.

Chua argued it will be difficult for carriers to compete “on the basis of connectivity alone” — suggesting operators will have to pivot their businesses to build out standalone business offerings selling all sorts of b2b services to support the digital transformations of other industries as part of the 5G promise — and that’s clearly going to suck up a lot of their time and mind for the foreseeable future.

In Europe alone estimates for the cost of rolling out 5G range between €300BN and €500BN (~$340BN-$570BN), according to Bieler. Figures that underline why 5G is going to grow slowly, and networks be built out thoughtfully; in the b2b space this means essentially on a case-by-case basis.

Simply put carriers must make the economics stack up. Which means no “huge enormous gambles with 5G”. And omnipresent ROI pressure pushing them to try to eke out a premium.

“A lot of the network equipment vendors have turned down the hype quite a bit,” Bieler continues. “If you compare this to the hype around 3G many years ago or 4G a couple of years ago 5G definitely comes across as a soft launch. Sort of an evolutionary type of technology. I have not come across a network equipment vendors these days who will say there will be a complete change in everything by 2020.”

On the consumer pricing front, carriers have also only just started to grapple with 5G business models. One early example is TC parent Verizon’s 5G home service — which positions the next-gen wireless tech as an alternative to fixed line broadband with discounts if you opt for a wireless smartphone data plan as well as 5G broadband.

From the consumer point of view, the carrier 5G business model conundrum boils down to: What is my carrier going to charge me for 5G? And early adopters of any technology tend to get stung on that front.

Although, in mobile, price premiums rarely stick around for long as carriers inexorably find they must ditch premiums to unlock scale — via consumer-friendly ‘all you can eat’ price plans.

Still, in the short term, carriers look likely to experiment with 5G pricing and bundles — basically seeing what they can make early adopters pay. But it’s still far from clear that people will pay a premium for better connectivity alone. And that again necessitates caution. 

5G bundled with exclusive content might be one way carriers try to extract a premium from consumers. But without huge and/or compelling branded content inventory that risks being a too niche proposition too. And the more carriers split their 5G offers the more consumers might feel they don’t need to bother, and end up sticking with 4G for longer.

It’ll also clearly take time for a 5G ‘killer app’ to emerge in the consumer space. And such an app would likely need to still be able to fallback on 4G, again to ensure scale. So the 5G experience will really need to be compellingly different in order for the tech to sell itself.

On the handset side, 5G chipset hardware is also still in its first wave. At MWC this week Qualcomm announced a next-gen 5G modem, stepping up from last year’s Snapdragon 855 chipset — which it heavily touted as architected for 5G (though it doesn’t natively support 5G).

If you’re intending to buy and hold on to a 5G handset for a few years there’s thus a risk of early adopter burn at the chipset level — i.e. if you end up with a device with a suckier battery life vs later iterations of 5G hardware where more performance kinks have been ironed out.

Intel has warned its 5G modems won’t be in phones until next year — so, again, that suggests no 5G iPhones before 2020. And Apple is of course a great bellwether for mainstream consumer tech; the company only jumps in when it believes a technology is ready for prime time, rarely sooner. And if Cupertino feels 5G can wait, that’s going to be equally true for most consumers.

Zooming out, the specter of network security (and potential regulation) now looms very large indeed where 5G is concerned, thanks to East-West trade tensions injecting a strange new world of geopolitical uncertainty into an industry that’s never really had to grapple with this kind of business risk before.

Chinese kit maker Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, used the opportunity of an MWC keynote to defend the company and its 5G solutions against U.S. claims its network tech could be repurposed by the Chinese state as a high tech conduit to spy on the West — literally telling delegates: “We don’t do bad things” and appealing to them to plainly to: “Please choose Huawei!”

Huawei rotating resident, Guo Ping, defends the security of its network kit on stage at MWC 2019

When established technology vendors are having to use a high profile industry conference to plead for trust it’s strange and uncertain times indeed.

In Europe it’s possible carriers’ 5G network kit choices could soon be regulated as a result of security concerns attached to Chinese suppliers. The European Commission suggested as much this week, saying in another MWC keynote that it’s preparing to step in try to prevent security concerns at the EU Member State level from fragmenting 5G rollouts across the bloc.

In an on stage Q&A Orange’s chairman and CEO, Stéphane Richard, couched the risk of destabilization of the 5G global supply chain as a “big concern”, adding: “It’s the first time we have such an important risk in our industry.”

Geopolitical security is thus another issue carriers are having to factor in as they make decisions about how quickly to make the leap to 5G. And holding off on upgrades, while regulators and other standards bodies try to figure out a trusted way forward, might seem the more sensible thing to do — potentially stalling 5G upgrades in the meanwhile.

Given all the uncertainties there’s certainly no reason for consumers to rush in.

Smartphone upgrade cycles have slowed globally for a reason. Mobile hardware is mature because it’s serving consumers very well. Handsets are both powerful and capable enough to last for years.

And while there’s no doubt 5G will change things radically in future, including for consumers — enabling many more devices to be connected and feeding back data, with the potential to deliver on the (much hyped but also still pretty nascent) ‘smart home’ concept — the early 5G sales pitch for consumers essentially boils down to more of the same.

“Over the next ten years 4G will phase out. The question is how fast that happens in the meantime and again I think that will happen slower than in early times because [with 5G] you don’t come into a vacuum, you don’t fill a big gap,” suggests Gartner’s Fabre. “4G’s great, it’s getting better, wi’fi’s getting better… The story of let’s build a big national network to do 5G at scale [for all] that’s just not happening.”

“I think we’ll start very, very simple,” he adds of the 5G consumer proposition. “Things like caching data or simply doing more broadband faster. So more of the same.

“It’ll be great though. But you’ll still be watching Netflix and maybe there’ll be a couple of apps that come up… Maybe some more interactive collaboration or what have you. But we know these things are being used today by enterprises and consumers and they’ll continue to be used.”

So — in sum — the 5G mantra for the sensible consumer is really ‘wait and see’.

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When the Earth is gone, at least the internet will still be working – TechCrunch

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The internet is now our nervous system. We are constantly streaming and buying and watching and liking, our brains locked into the global information matrix as one universal and coruscating emanation of thought and emotion.

What happens when the machine stops though?

It’s a question that E.M. Forster was intensely focused on more than a century ago in a short story called, rightly enough, “The Machine Stops,” about a human civilization connected entirely through machines that one day just turn off.

Those fears of downtime are not just science fiction anymore. Outages aren’t just missing a must-watch TikTok clip. Hospitals, law enforcement, the government, every corporation — the entire spectrum of human institutions that constitute civilization now deeply rely on connectivity to function.

So when it comes to disaster response, the world has dramatically changed. In decades past, the singular focus could be roughly summarized as rescue and mitigation — save who you can while trying to limit the scale of destruction. Today though, the highest priority is by necessity internet access, not just for citizens, but increasingly for the on-the-ground first responders who need bandwidth to protect themselves, keep abreast of their mission objectives, and have real-time ground truth on where dangers lurk and where help is needed.

While the sales cycles might be arduous as we learned in part one and the data trickles have finally turned to streams in part two, the reality is that none of that matters if there isn’t connectivity to begin with. So in part three of this series on the future of technology and disaster response, we’re going to analyze the changing nature of bandwidth and connectivity and how they intersect with emergencies, taking a look at how telcos are creating resilience in their networks while defending against climate change, how first responders are integrating connectivity into their operations, and finally, exploring how new technologies like 5G and satellite internet will affect these critical activities.

Wireless resilience as the world burns

Climate change is inducing more intense weather patterns all around the world, creating second- and third-order effects for industries that rely on environmental stability for operations. Few industries have to be as dynamic to the changing context as telecom companies, whose wired and wireless infrastructure is regularly buffeted by severe storms. Resiliency of these networks isn’t just needed for consumers — it’s absolutely necessary for the very responders trying to mitigate disasters and get the network back up in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, no issue looms larger for telcos than access to power — no juice, no bars. So all three of America’s major telcos — Verizon (which owns TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media, although not for much longer), AT&T and T-Mobile — have had to dramatically scale up their resiliency efforts in recent years to compensate both for the demand for wireless and the growing damage wrought by weather.

Jay Naillon, senior director of national technology service operations strategy at T-Mobile, said that the company has made resilience a key part of its network buildout in recent years, with investments in generators at cell towers that can be relied upon when the grid cannot. In “areas that have been hit by hurricanes or places that have fragile grids … that is where we have invested most of our fixed assets,” he said.

Like all three telcos, T-Mobile pre-deploys equipment in anticipation for disruptions. So when a hurricane begins to swirl in the Atlantic Ocean, the company will strategically fly in portable generators and mobile cell towers in anticipation of potential outages. “We look at storm forecasts for the year,” Naillon explained, and do “lots of preventative planning.” They also work with emergency managers and “run through various drills with them and respond and collaborate effectively with them” to determine which parts of the network are most at risk for damage in an emergency. Last year, the company partnered with StormGeo to accurately predict weather events.

Predictive AI for disasters is also a critical need for AT&T. Jason Porter, who leads public sector and the company’s FirstNet first-responder network, said that AT&T teamed up with Argonne National Laboratory to create a climate-change analysis tool to evaluate the siting of its cell towers and how they will weather the next 30 years of “floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.” “We redesigned our buildout … based on what our algorithms told us would come,” he said, and the company has been elevating vulnerable cell towers four to eight feet high on “stilts” to improve their resiliency to at least some weather events. That “gave ourselves some additional buffer.”

AT&T has also had to manage the growing complexity of creating reliability with the chaos of a climate-change-induced world. In recent years, “we quickly realized that many of our deployments were due to weather-related events,” and the company has been “very focused on expanding our generator coverage over the past few years,” Porter said. It’s also been very focused on building out its portable infrastructure. “We essentially deploy entire data centers on trucks so that we can stand up essentially a central office,” he said, empathizing that the company’s national disaster recovery team responded to thousands of events last year.

Particularly on its FirstNet service, AT&T has pioneered two new technologies to try to get bandwidth to disaster-hit regions faster. First, it has invested in drones to offer wireless services from the sky. After Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana last year with record-setting winds, our “cell towers were twisted up like recycled aluminum cans … so we needed to deploy a sustainable solution,” Porter described. So the company deployed what it dubs the FirstNet One — a “dirigible” that “can cover twice the cell coverage range of a cell tower on a truck, and it can stay up for literally weeks, refuel in less than an hour and go back up — so long-term, sustainable coverage,” he said.

AT&T’s FirstNet One dirigible to offer internet access from the air for first responders. Image Credits: AT&T/FirstNet

Secondly, the company has been building out what it calls FirstNet MegaRange — a set of high-powered wireless equipment that it announced earlier this year that can deploy signals from miles away, say from a ship moored off a coast, to deliver reliable connectivity to first responders in the hardest-hit disaster zones.

As the internet has absorbed more of daily life, the norms for network resilience have become ever more exacting. Small outages can disrupt not just a first responder, but a child taking virtual classes and a doctor conducting remote surgery. From fixed and portable generators to rapid-deployment mobile cell towers and dirigibles, telcos are investing major resources to keep their networks running continuously.

Yet, these initiatives are ultimately costs borne by telcos increasingly confronting a world burning up. Across conversations with all three telcos and others in the disaster response space, there was a general sense that utilities just increasingly have to self-insulate themselves in a climate-changed world. For instance, cell towers need their own generators because — as we saw with Texas earlier this year — even the power grid itself can’t be guaranteed to be there. Critical applications need to have offline capabilities, since internet outages can’t always be prevented. The machine runs, but the machine stops, too.

The trend lines on the frontlines are data lines

While we may rely on connectivity in our daily lives as consumers, disaster responders have been much more hesitant to fully transition to connected services. It is precisely in the middle of a tornado and the cell tower is down that you realize a printed map might have been nice to have. Paper, pens, compasses — the old staples of survival flicks remain just as important in the field today as they were decades ago.

Yet, the power of software and connectivity to improve emergency response has forced a rethinking of field communications and how deeply technology is integrated on the ground. Data from the frontlines is extremely useful, and if it can be transmitted, dramatically improves the ability of operations planners to respond safely and efficiently.

Both AT&T and Verizon have made large investments in directly servicing the unique needs of the first responder community, with AT&T in particular gaining prominence with its FirstNet network, which it exclusively operates through a public-private partnership with the Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority. The government offered a special spectrum license to the FirstNet authority in Band 14 in exchange for the buildout of a responder-exclusive network, a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which found that first responders couldn’t communicate with each other on the day of those deadly terrorist attacks. Now, Porter of AT&T says that the company’s buildout is “90% complete” and is approaching 3 million square miles of coverage.

Why so much attention on first responders? The telcos are investing here because in many ways, the first responders are on the frontiers of technology. They need edge computing, AI/ML rapid decision-making, the bandwidth and latency of 5G (which we will get to in a bit), high reliability, and in general, are fairly profitable customers to boot. In other words, what first responders need today are what consumers in general are going to want tomorrow.

Cory Davis, director of public safety strategy and crisis response at Verizon, explained that “more than ever, first responders are relying on technology to go out there and save lives.” His counterpart, Nick Nilan, who leads product management for the public sector, said that “when we became Verizon, it was really about voice [and] what’s changed over the last five [years] is the importance of data.” He brings attention to tools for situational awareness, mapping, and more that are a becoming standard in the field. Everything first responders do “comes back to the network — do you have the coverage where you need it, do you have the network access when something happens?”

The challenge for the telcos is that we all want access to that network when catastrophe strikes, which is precisely when network resources are most scarce. The first responder trying to communicate with their team on the ground or their operations center is inevitably competing with a citizen letting friends know they are safe — or perhaps just watching the latest episode of a TV show in their vehicle as they are fleeing the evacuation zone.

That competition is the argument for a completely segmented network like FirstNet, which has its own dedicated spectrum with devices that can only be used by first responders. “With remote learning, remote work and general congestion,” Porter said, telcos and other bandwidth providers were overwhelmed with consumer demand. “Thankfully we saw through FirstNet … clearing that 20 MHz of spectrum for first responders” helped keep the lines clear for high-priority communications.

FirstNet’s big emphasis is on its dedicated spectrum, but that’s just one component of a larger strategy to give first responders always-on and ready access to wireless services. AT&T and Verizon have made prioritization and preemption key operational components of their networks in recent years. Prioritization gives public safety users better access to the network, while preemption can include actively kicking off lower-priority consumers from the network to ensure first responders have immediate access.

Nilan of Verizon said, “The network is built for everybody … but once we start thinking about who absolutely needs access to the network at a period of time, we prioritize our first responders.” Verizon has prioritization, preemption, and now virtual segmentation — “we separate their traffic from consumer traffic” so that first responders don’t have to compete if bandwidth is limited in the middle of a disaster. He noted that all three approaches have been enabled since 2018, and Verizon’s suite of bandwidth and software for first responders comes under the newly christened Verizon Frontline brand that launched in March.

With increased bandwidth reliability, first responders are increasingly connected in ways that even a decade ago would have been unfathomable. Tablets, sensors, connected devices and tools — equipment that would have been manual are now increasingly digital.

That opens up a wealth of possibilities now that the infrastructure is established. My interview subjects suggested applications as diverse as the decentralized coordination of response team movements through GPS and 5G; real-time updated maps that offer up-to-date risk analysis of how a disaster might progress; pathfinding for evacuees that’s updated as routes fluctuate; AI damage assessments even before the recovery process begins; and much, much more. In fact, when it comes to the ferment of the imagination, many of those possibilities will finally be realized in the coming years — when they have only ever been marketing-speak and technical promises in the past.

Five, Gee

We’ve been hearing about 5G for years now, and even 6G every once in a while just to cause reporters heart attacks, but what does 5G even mean in the context of disaster response? After years of speculation, we are finally starting to get answers.

Naillon of T-Mobile noted that the biggest benefit of 5G is that it “allows us to have greater coverage” particularly given the low-band spectrum that the standard partially uses. That said, “As far as applications — we are not really there at that point from an emergency response perspective,” he said.

Meanwhile, Porter of AT&T said that “the beauty of 5G that we have seen there is less about the speed and more about the latency.” Consumers have often seen marketing around voluminous bandwidths, but in the first-responder world, latency and edge computing tends to be the most desirable features. For instance, devices can relay video to each other on the frontlines, without necessarily needing a backhaul to the main wireless network. On-board processing of image data could allow for rapid decision-making in environments where seconds can be vital to the success of a mission.

That flexibility is allowing for many new applications in disaster response, and “we are seeing some amazing use cases coming out of our 5G deployments [and] we have launched some of our pilots with the [Department of Defense],” Porter said. He offered an example of “robotic dogs to go and do bomb dismantling or inspecting and recovery.”

Verizon has made innovating on new applications a strategic goal, launching a 5G First Responders Lab dedicated to guiding a new generation of startups to build at this crossroads. Nilan of Verizon said that the incubator has had more than 20 companies across four different cohorts, working on everything from virtual reality training environments to AR applications that allow firefighters to “see through walls.” His colleague Davis said that “artificial intelligence is going to continue to get better and better and better.”

Blueforce is a company that went through the first cohort of the Lab. The company uses 5G to connect sensors and devices together to allow first responders to make the best decisions they can with the most up-to-date data. Michael Helfrich, founder and CEO, said that “because of these new networks … commanders are able to leave the vehicle and go into the field and get the same fidelity” of information that they normally would have to be in a command center to receive. He noted that in addition to classic user interfaces, the company is exploring other ways of presenting information to responders. “They don’t have to look at a screen anymore, and [we’re] exploring different cognitive models like audio, vibration and heads-up displays.”

5G will offer many new ways to improve emergency responses, but that doesn’t mean that our current 4G networks will just disappear. Davis said that many sensors in the field don’t need the kind of latency or bandwidth that 5G offers. “LTE is going to be around for many, many more years,” he said, pointing to the hardware and applications taking advantage of LTE-M standards for Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a key development for the future here.

Michael Martin of emergency response data platform RapidSOS said that “it does feel like there is renewed energy to solve real problems,” in the disaster response market, which he dubbed the “Elon Musk effect.” And that effect definitely does exist when it comes to connectivity, where SpaceX’s satellite bandwidth project Starlink comes into play.

Satellite uplinks have historically had horrific latency and bandwidth constraints, making them difficult to use in disaster contexts. Furthermore, depending on the particular type of disaster, satellite uplinks can be astonishingly challenging to setup given the ground environment. Starlink promises to shatter all of those barriers — easier connections, fat pipes, low latencies and a global footprint that would be the envy of any first responder globally. Its network is still under active development, so it is difficult to foresee today precisely what its impact will be on the disaster response market, but it’s an offering to watch closely in the years ahead, because it has the potential to completely upend the way we respond to disasters this century if its promises pan out.

Yet, even if we discount Starlink, the change coming this decade in emergency response represents a complete revolution. The depth and resilience of connectivity is changing the equation for first responders from complete reliance on antiquated tools to an embrace of the future of digital computing. The machine is no longer stoppable.


Future of Technology and Disaster Response Table of Contents


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Longevity startup Gero AI has a mobile API for quantifying health changes – TechCrunch

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Sensor data from smartphones and wearables can meaningfully predict an individual’s ‘biological age’ and resilience to stress, according to Gero AI.

The ‘longevity’ startup — which condenses its mission to the pithy goal of “hacking complex diseases and aging with Gero AI” — has developed an AI model to predict morbidity risk using ‘digital biomarkers’ that are based on identifying patterns in step-counter sensor data which tracks mobile users’ physical activity.

A simple measure of ‘steps’ isn’t nuanced enough on its own to predict individual health, is the contention. Gero’s AI has been trained on large amounts of biological data to spots patterns that can be linked to morbidity risk. It also measures how quickly a personal recovers from a biological stress — another biomarker that’s been linked to lifespan; i.e. the faster the body recovers from stress, the better the individual’s overall health prognosis.

A research paper Gero has had published in the peer-reviewed biomedical journal Aging explains how it trained deep neural networks to predict morbidity risk from mobile device sensor data — and was able to demonstrate that its biological age acceleration model was comparable to models based on blood test results.

Another paper, due to be published in the journal Nature Communications later this month, will go into detail on its device-derived measurement of biological resilience.

The Singapore-based startup, which has research roots in Russia — founded back in 2015 by a Russian scientist with a background in theoretical physics — has raised a total of $5 million in seed funding to date (in two tranches).

Backers come from both the biotech and the AI fields, per co-founder Peter Fedichev. Its investors include Belarus-based AI-focused early stage fund, Bulba Ventures (Yury Melnichek). On the pharma side, it has backing from some (unnamed) private individuals with links to Russian drug development firm, Valenta. (The pharma company itself is not an investor).

Fedichev is a theoretical physicist by training who, after his PhD and some ten years in academia, moved into biotech to work on molecular modelling and machine learning for drug discovery — where he got interested in the problem of ageing and decided to start the company.

As well as conducting its own biological research into longevity (studying mice and nematodes), it’s focused on developing an AI model for predicting the biological age and resilience to stress of humans — via sensor data captured by mobile devices.

“Health of course is much more than one number,” emphasizes Fedichev. “We should not have illusions about that. But if you are going to condense human health to one number then, for a lot of people, the biological age is the best number. It tells you — essentially — how toxic is your lifestyle… The more biological age you have relative to your chronological age years — that’s called biological acceleration — the more are your chances to get chronic disease, to get seasonal infectious diseases or also develop complications from those seasonal diseases.”

Gero has recently launched a (paid, for now) API, called GeroSense, that’s aimed at health and fitness apps so they can tap up its AI modelling to offer their users an individual assessment of biological age and resilience (aka recovery rate from stress back to that individual’s baseline).

Early partners are other longevity-focused companies, AgelessRx and Humanity Inc. But the idea is to get the model widely embedded into fitness apps where it will be able to send a steady stream of longitudinal activity data back to Gero, to further feed its AI’s predictive capabilities and support the wider research mission — where it hopes to progress anti-ageing drug discovery, working in partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.

The carrot for the fitness providers to embed the API is to offer their users a fun and potentially valuable feature: A personalized health measurement so they can track positive (or negative) biological changes — helping them quantify the value of whatever fitness service they’re using.

“Every health and wellness provider — maybe even a gym — can put into their app for example… and this thing can rank all their classes in the gym, all their systems in the gym, for their value for different kinds of users,” explains Fedichev.

“We developed these capabilities because we need to understand how ageing works in humans, not in mice. Once we developed it we’re using it in our sophisticated genetic research in order to find genes — we are testing them in the laboratory — but, this technology, the measurement of ageing from continuous signals like wearable devices, is a good trick on its own. So that’s why we announced this GeroSense project,” he goes on.

“Ageing is this gradual decline of your functional abilities which is bad but you can go to the gym and potentially improve them. But the problem is you’re losing this resilience. Which means that when you’re [biologically] stressed you cannot get back to the norm as quickly as possible. So we report this resilience. So when people start losing this resilience it means that they’re not robust anymore and the same level of stress as in their 20s would get them [knocked off] the rails.

“We believe this loss of resilience is one of the key ageing phenotypes because it tells you that you’re vulnerable for future diseases even before those diseases set in.”

“In-house everything is ageing. We are totally committed to ageing: Measurement and intervention,” adds Fedichev. “We want to building something like an operating system for longevity and wellness.”

Gero is also generating some revenue from two pilots with “top range” insurance companies — which Fedichev says it’s essentially running as a proof of business model at this stage. He also mentions an early pilot with Pepsi Co.

He sketches a link between how it hopes to work with insurance companies in the area of health outcomes with how Elon Musk is offering insurance products to owners of its sensor-laden Teslas, based on what it knows about how they drive — because both are putting sensor data in the driving seat, if you’ll pardon the pun. (“Essentially we are trying to do to humans what Elon Musk is trying to do to cars,” is how he puts it.)

But the nearer term plan is to raise more funding — and potentially switch to offering the API for free to really scale up the data capture potential.

Zooming out for a little context, it’s been almost a decade since Google-backed Calico launched with the moonshot mission of ‘fixing death’. Since then a small but growing field of ‘longevity’ startups has sprung up, conducting research into extending (in the first instance) human lifespan. (Ending death is, clearly, the moonshot atop the moonshot.) 

Death is still with us, of course, but the business of identifying possible drugs and therapeutics to stave off the grim reaper’s knock continues picking up pace — attracting a growing volume of investor dollars.

The trend is being fuelled by health and biological data becoming ever more plentiful and accessible, thanks to open research data initiatives and the proliferation of digital devices and services for tracking health, set alongside promising developments in the fast-evolving field of machine learning in areas like predictive healthcare and drug discovery.

Longevity has also seen a bit of an upsurge in interest in recent times as the coronavirus pandemic has concentrated minds on health and wellness, generally — and, well, mortality specifically.

Nonetheless, it remains a complex, multi-disciplinary business. Some of these biotech moonshots are focused on bioengineering and gene-editing — pushing for disease diagnosis and/or drug discovery.

Plenty are also — like Gero —  trying to use AI and big data analysis to better understand and counteract biological ageing, bringing together experts in physics, maths and biological science to hunt for biomarkers to further research aimed at combating age-related disease and deterioration.

Another recent example is AI startup Deep Longevity, which came out of stealth last summer — as a spinout from AI drug discovery startup Insilico Medicine — touting an AI ‘longevity as a service’ system which it claims can predict an individual’s biological age “significantly more accurately than conventional methods” (and which it also hopes will help scientists to unpick which “biological culprits drive aging-related diseases”, as it put it).

Gero AI is taking a different tack toward the same overarching goal — by honing in on data generated by activity sensors embedded into the everyday mobile devices people carry with them (or wear) as a proxy signal for studying their biology.

The advantage being that it doesn’t require a person to undergo regular (invasive) blood tests to get an ongoing measure of their own health. Instead our personal device can generate proxy signals for biological study passively — at vast scale and low cost. So the promise of Gero’s ‘digital biomarkers’ is they could democratize access to individual health prediction.

And while billionaires like Peter Thiel can afford to shell out for bespoke medical monitoring and interventions to try to stay one step ahead of death, such high end services simply won’t scale to the rest of us.

If its digital biomarkers live up to Gero’s claims, its approach could, at the least, help steer millions towards healthier lifestyles, while also generating rich data for longevity R&D — and to support the development of drugs that could extend human lifespan (albeit what such life-extending pills might cost is a whole other matter).

The insurance industry is naturally interested — with the potential for such tools to be used to nudge individuals towards healthier lifestyles and thereby reduce payout costs.

For individuals who are motivated to improve their health themselves, Fedichev says the issue now is it’s extremely hard for people to know exactly which lifestyle changes or interventions are best suited to their particular biology.

For example fasting has been shown in some studies to help combat biological ageing. But he notes that the approach may not be effective for everyone. The same may be true of other activities that are accepted to be generally beneficial for health (like exercise or eating or avoiding certain foods).

Again those rules of thumb may have a lot of nuance, depending on an individual’s particular biology. And scientific research is, inevitably, limited by access to funding. (Research can thus tend to focus on certain groups to the exclusion of others — e.g. men rather than women; or the young rather than middle aged.)

This is why Fedichev believes there’s a lot of value in creating a measure than can address health-related knowledge gaps at essentially no individual cost.

Gero has used longitudinal data from the UK’s biobank, one of its research partners, to verify its model’s measurements of biological age and resilience. But of course it hopes to go further — as it ingests more data. 

“Technically it’s not properly different what we are doing — it just happens that we can do it now because there are such efforts like UK biobank. Government money and also some industry sponsors money, maybe for the first time in the history of humanity, we have this situation where we have electronic medical records, genetics, wearable devices from hundreds of thousands of people, so it just became possible. It’s the convergence of several developments — technological but also what I would call ‘social technologies’ [like the UK biobank],” he tells TechCrunch.

“Imagine that for every diet, for every training routine, meditation… in order to make sure that we can actually optimize lifestyles — understand which things work, which do not [for each person] or maybe some experimental drugs which are already proved [to] extend lifespan in animals are working, maybe we can do something different.”

“When we will have 1M tracks [half a year’s worth of data on 1M individuals] we will combine that with genetics and solve ageing,” he adds, with entrepreneurial flourish. “The ambitious version of this plan is we’ll get this million tracks by the end of the year.”

Fitness and health apps are an obvious target partner for data-loving longevity researchers — but you can imagine it’ll be a mutual attraction. One side can bring the users, the other a halo of credibility comprised of deep tech and hard science.

“We expect that these [apps] will get lots of people and we will be able to analyze those people for them as a fun feature first, for their users. But in the background we will build the best model of human ageing,” Fedichev continues, predicting that scoring the effect of different fitness and wellness treatments will be “the next frontier” for wellness and health (Or, more pithily: “Wellness and health has to become digital and quantitive.”)

“What we are doing is we are bringing physicists into the analysis of human data. Since recently we have lots of biobanks, we have lots of signals — including from available devices which produce something like a few years’ long windows on the human ageing process. So it’s a dynamical system — like weather prediction or financial market predictions,” he also tells us.

“We cannot own the treatments because we cannot patent them but maybe we can own the personalization — the AI that personalized those treatments for you.”

From a startup perspective, one thing looks crystal clear: Personalization is here for the long haul.

 

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Following Apple’s launch of privacy labels, Google to add a ‘safety’ section in Google Play – TechCrunch

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Months after Apple’s App Store introduced privacy labels for apps, Google announced its own mobile app marketplace, Google Play, will follow suit. The company today pre-announced its plans to introduce a new “safety” section in Google Play, rolling out next year, which will require app developers to share what sort of data their apps collect, how it’s stored, and how it’s used.

For example, developers will need to share what sort of personal information their apps collect, like users’ names or emails, and whether it collects information from the phone, like the user’s precise location, their media files or contacts. Apps will also need to explain how the app uses that information — for example, for enhancing the app’s functionality or for personalization purposes.

Developers who already adhere to specific security and privacy practices will additionally be able to highlight that in their app listing. On this front, Google says it will add new elements that detail whether the app uses security practices like data encryption; if the app follows Google’s Families policy, related to child safety; if the app’s safety section has been verified by an independent third party; whether the app needs data to function or allows users to choose whether or not share data; and whether the developer agrees to delete user data when a user uninstalls the app in question.

Apps will also be required to provide their privacy policies.

While clearly inspired by Apple’s privacy labels, there are several key differences. Apple’s labels focus on what data is being collected for tracking purposes and what’s linked to the end user. Google’s additions seem to be more about whether or not you can trust the data being collected is being handled responsibility, by allowing the developer to showcase if they follow best practices around data security, for instance. It also gives the developer a way to make a case for why it’s collecting data right on the listing page itself. (Apple’s “ask to track” pop-ups on iOS now force developers to beg inside their apps for access user data).

Another interesting addition is that Google will allow the app data labels to be independently verified. Assuming these verifications are handled by trusted names, they could help to convey to users that the disclosures aren’t lies. One early criticism of Apple’s privacy labels was that many were providing inaccurate information — and were getting away with it, too.

Google says the new features will not roll out until Q2 2022, but it wanted to announce now in order to give developers plenty of time to prepare.

Image Credits: Google

There is, of course, a lot of irony to be found in an app privacy announcement from Google.

The company was one of the longest holdouts on issuing privacy labels for its own iOS apps, as it scrambled to review (and re-review, we understand) the labels’ content and disclosures. After initially claiming its labels would roll out “soon,” many of Google’s top apps then entered a lengthy period where they received no updates at all, as they were no longer compliant with App Store policies.

It took Google months after the deadline had passed to provide labels for its top apps. And when it did, it was mocked by critics — like privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo — for how much data apps like Chrome and the Google app collect.

Google’s plan to add a safety section of its own to Google Play gives it a chance to shift the narrative a bit.

It’s not a privacy push, necessarily. They’re not even called privacy labels! Instead, the changes seem designed to allow app developers to better explain if you can trust their app with your data, rather than setting the expectation that the app should not be collecting data in the first place.

How well this will resonate with consumers remains to be seen. Apple has made a solid case that it’s a company that compares about user privacy, and is adding features that put users in control of their data. It’s a hard argument to fight back against — especially in an era that’s seen too many data breaches to count, careless handling of private data by tech giants, widespread government spying, and a creepy adtech industry that grew to feel entitled to user data collection without disclosure.

Google says when the changes roll out, non-compliant apps will be required to fix their violations or become subject to policy enforcement. It hasn’t yet detailed how that process will be handled, or whether it will pause app updates for apps in violation.

The company noted its own apps would be required to share this same information and a privacy policy, too.

 

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