We go hands on (sort of) with the new 5G hotspots from AT&T and Verizon. They’re fast, but man, they’re big.
By Sascha Segan | December 5, 2018 9:44AM EST
WAILEA, Hawaii—Put a 5G hotspot down on the table next to a 4G one, and you’ll know the difference pretty quickly. The 5G one is bigger. At Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Summit this week, we got hands on with the new hotspots from Inseego and Netgear for AT&T and Verizon, and…they’re big.
Like a lot of hardware we’re seeing at the summit, these were early units. Their LCD screens didn’t turn on, for instance, which was frustrating. But I got at least some impressions of what these hotspots will bring mobile internet users.
That’s a Big MiFi
Inseego showed off a telemedicine demo we first saw at Verizon’s Alley incubator earlier this year, with two people practicing physical therapy wearing VR headsets. For the physical therapy to feel real, it needs a very low-latency link, and the 5G hotspot connected to the PC running the demo delivered less than 10ms latency.
Beyond that, though, the new MiFi looks like it’s finally making the dream of personal broadband come true. It’s a portable router that’s fast enough and flexible enough to provide home internet, although Verizon hasn’t said what its 5G service plans will be like yet.
The MiFi running the demo, which does not yet have a product name or price, is a black box about the size of two 4G MiFis, with a USB-C port on the front and an Ethernet jack on the back. The Ethernet output solves a funny problem with 5G: initially, it’s going to be faster than Wi-Fi. While the MiFi may get Verizon 5G speeds of 2Gbps or above, its 802.11ac Wi-Fi connection will get around 400-500Mbps in most circumstances. So to really max out the pipe, you’ll have to tether with Ethernet or USB.
Inseego’s press release says the device is “Wi-Fi 6 ready,” though, which means in the future it will support the faster 802.11ax. But Inseego reps here at the summit wouldn’t confirm the details of that upgrade.
Another change from current MiFis: no external antenna ports. Inseego reps explained that’s because if you separate millimeter-wave antennas from their modem, you get a lot of signal loss. Inseego has a home Wi-Fi product for Verizon with an externally mounted antenna, but if you go for the hotspot, you’re relying on the coverage in the black box itself.
Initially, the hotspot will be exclusive to Verizon in the US, although it will roam on LTE networks abroad. Inseego is building another, similar model to support foreign 5G networks on the sub-6GHz bands.
Battery life will be “all day,” as with current higher-end hotspots, and the device will be sold when Verizon turns on its mobile 5G network in 2019.
AT&T showed off augmented and virtual reality experiences powered by its Netgear M5 Fusion hotspot, although I only got a chance to handle a dummy version of that hotspot; the live one was up and out of the way.
The M5 Fusion is also, well, really big. At first glance it appears to be somewhat greater in area, but less thick, than the Inseego hotspot (I couldn’t put them next to each other.) It’s smaller than a paperback book; it’s just bigger than a 4G hotspot.
The Netgear hotspot has a USB-C port, but surprisingly, no Ethernet output. So the M5 will be a Wi-Fi-first experience, designed to beam internet to multiple devices at once.
In AT&T’s booth at the summit, the Netgear hotspot was being used to put you in immersive environments or letting you “travel” by streaming VR. Those are the kinds of experiences Mark Zuckerberg has touted as the future of VR, bringing people together in virtual worlds or helping them experience different places.
But the individual applications, in both AT&T’s and Verizon’s cases, aren’t all that important. What’s important is that these were working, personal broadband boxes, with fiber-like speeds that you can set up and take anywhere with 5G coverage. Once they get out there, I’m pretty sure we’ll find new applications for them that we haven’t thought of before.
AT&T pledges to release its M5 Fusion and launch its initial 5G cities by the end of the year.