Why the race to deploy 5G networks matters to Microsoft

5G, in simplest terms, is the fifth generation of wireless technology. 1G was the voice-focused generation which supported phone use from anywhere. 2G brought messaging or short text capabilities. 3G gave us the data network speeds that helped push smartphone evolution. 4G introduced data capacities that support a variety of modern devices and services. 5G is a leap in wireless tech that promises much higher speeds, far broader capacity and a platform for a variety of new computing scenarios.

As more devices become connected, the current infrastructure is incapable of ensuring connectivity. 5G, using high-frequency millimeter waves "creates spectrum space" to accommodate the billions of devices expected to become connected in the near future. Many carriers including T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, China Mobile, Vodaphone Group and Verizon, are racing to roll out 5G networks between this year and 2019.

As carriers and cable companies push 5G networks in dozens of cities and device makers like Asus, HTC, LG, Sony, Xiaomi and others commit to 5G devices, what does all this mean for Microsoft's connected computing strategy?


Qualcomm provides the technology that powers most of the mobile industry. The company's success is rooted in a model to invest in technology early and reap the benefits five to 10 years later. It has invested years and billions of dollars in building 5G infrastructure in a long-term plan to reap the benefits of what may be a leap in wireless technology.

Qualcomm envisions 5G as a revolutionary platform that will enable more powerful and proactive artificial intelligence (AI), more practical augmented reality (AR), intelligent imaging for greater content creation, advanced security and more. 5G will allow IoT devices to communicate and connect with each other. These devices will no longer be network endpoints, but a unified platform of devices that communicate with each other. Furthermore, they will be able to learn about users via AI and act proactively to accomplish tasks involving other devices without any human intervention.

In a comprehensive approach, Qualcomm also built the X50 5G modem that was designed from the ground up for the next generation of 5G connected devices. Carriers are complementing this push with their efforts to roll out 5G networks.

5G in the making

5G networks won't meet its full potential out of the gate. Currently, the 5G that is rolling out or being planned for rollout may handle part of a carrier's network while other portions like voice remain supported on 4G for example. There will be a simultaneous implementation of older and 5G tech in the near term.

Furthermore, every company that is building 5G networks is doing so based on what works for them. There is no strict roadmap and set of rules dictating an altruistic uniformity for a universal 5G platform. Consequently, there may be some companies boasting they have 5G though a bulk of their network infrastructure is still 4G. Also, some cable companies will provide wired 5G but not mobile 5G.

Still, 5G is coming, and Microsoft's investments depend heavily on this tech.

Microsoft and 5G

Microsoft's vision for the future revolves around connectivity. From cloud investments that provoked a company-wide reorg, to always connected PCs, ubiquitous computing, IoT, and AI, 5G is core to the success of Microsoft's vision.

As a platform company Microsoft, like Qualcomm, sees an interconnection between all personal computing experiences. Thus, Microsoft's ubiquitous computing vision (where computing happens all around us) is founded on the fact that IoT hardware, powered by cognitive services will be able to interact with humans from everywhere. The ambient computing experience requires billions of IoT devices on high-speed mobile networks capable of handling the intense data AI will require for these scenarios. For this 5G is key.

Microsoft and Qualcomm brought full Windows to ARM, while other Microsoft partners brought other forms of always-connected PCs to market. Full Windows PCs on the cellular roadmap challenges the mobile OS-centric model that currently dominates mobile computing. Microsoft has also pushed Windows' evolution as a "mobile" platform by enabling users to purchase data from carriers directly Windows store. 5G connectivity is an important factor in the PCs evolution as form-shifting, always-connected devices of various shapes and sizes. Surface Andromeda may represent an intersection of a pocketable Windows PC and 5G.

Microsoft's connected car platform will benefit from 5G.

Remote healthcare and connected cars are also areas Microsoft has invested in. Both are mission critical scenarios that 5G enables due to its capacity to manage the vast amounts of data, and security required to support these platforms. AI, which is also a key factor made more efficient on these intelligent edge scenarios. It is a critical part of facilitating these and many other scenarios in which Microsoft is investing.

Microsoft has demonstrated telepresence (projecting holograms of people to remote locations) and remotely assisting others via augmented reality (AR) and HoloLens. 5G would allow faster and more robust data transfers for richer holographic and more efficient real-time interactions. Virtual reality (VR) shared VR experiences are also mixed reality experiences 5G would enhance.

5G with a purpose

For Microsoft, 5G isn't a buzzword. It is the means by which Redmond's personal computing, cloud, IoT, ubiquitous computing, AR and always-connected PC vision will be manifest. Current network speeds and capacities are not adequate to support what Microsoft sees as computing's future. Microsoft's strategy is to leverage the intelligent edge powered by low-latency 5G as a speedy and robust portal to its cloud (Azure), "the world's computer".

5G promises to efficiently connect billions of more devices and convey and process vast amounts of data. Microsoft wants all of these devices and data connected to its intelligent edge and cloud.

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!