OULU, Finland—The sun never sets on the 5G network here. Well, maybe it dips below the horizon just a bit. But at midnight on a Tuesday morning in June, it looks like 4 p.m., and the local pub is full of engineers attending a big European 5G conference.
The pub isn't always that full on a Tuesday, the local barflies tell me. But Oulu, a city of about 200,000 up near the Arctic Circle, is always full of engineers. It's a perfect example of something America needs more of: a city that reinvented itself after its major industrial employer crashed. Out of the crumbling hulk of Nokia has come what's probably the northernmost startup scene in the world, with dozens of smaller companies now filling up Nokia's old offices at the edge of town.
If anywhere is 5G Town, it's Oulu. It's home to not just one but three 5G test networks, and it's where Nokia (still) is building its 5G base stations. It was 4G Town, too, and probably 2G Town before that, and then, back in the 1970s, Radio Town. If you want to figure out what people are going to be doing with the multi-billion-dollar next-gen networks we'll start seeing in the US in 2018 and 2019, you'll probably find a wider variety of people thinking about it in Oulu than almost anywhere else. Certainly more than anywhere else with 200,000 people, and definitely more than anywhere else in the Arctic.
I came to Oulu because we're about to have a great wave of 5G crashing on our shores. US carriers led the world in 4G LTE, which enabled widespread streaming media and apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Now they're poised to do the same with 5G. Verizon and AT&T will launch pre-standard 5G networks used for home internet later this year, followed by T-Mobile with a purely mobile network in 2019.
You could argue that we saw Spotify and mobile Netflix coming when we moved from 3G to 4G in 2010-2012. Those services were the obvious uses, enabled by faster download speeds. Analysts back in 2010 ginned up enthusiasm for FaceTime over 4G, too. We didn't see Snapchat coming, though: a social network that leaned on the faster upload speeds of 4G to dump ephemeral stories full of images onto the internet.
5G, like 4G, is going to be faster. But it'll also be just plain more—it's a grab-bag of options for fast consumer connections, low-power machine-to-machine technologies, and everything connected to everything. Even within the most talked-about applications of virtual and augmented reality, we're still not sure what will actually work and what will actually change the world. Something probably will. They may have been talking about it that weekend in Oulu. So I listened.
How to Rebuild a Tech City
Oulu didn't do too well in the 4G era, but it's placing a big bet on 5G.
About a third of the workforce in Oulu is in tech, according to Pekka Soini of government funding agency Tekes. I spotted a curious collection of recognizable names on the quick ride from the small airport to downtown: Polar, the health-tracker company; Mediatek, the second-biggest maker of mobile-phone processors; and ARM, which has 100 people in town and develops the basic software for almost every mobile processor in the world.
But there's also a slew of companies you may not have heard of that are hived into a series of old Nokia offices redeveloped into startup parks. There you'll find Haltian, which makes hardware for Kickstarter dreamers; IndoorAtlas, which builds maps of Smithsonian museums based on little wobbles in the Earth's magnetic field; Yota Devices, the ill-starred Russian mobile phone maker; and, down the road, Bittium, which makes military-grade phones that can resist Russian intrusion.
Hardware startups are big in Oulu; iStoc lets you diagnose health problems using your smartphone's camera, while KNL Networks pumps data over short-wave radio, bringing shortwave into the 21st century, for example.
Seven years ago, most of these companies weren't there: It was all Nokia as far as the eye could see. Even now, that's what a lot of wireless-industry watchers think of Oulu. When I asked T-Mobile US CEO Neville Ray about Oulu, he replied, "Isn't that where Nokia makes the base stations?" And he's right. But a funny thing happened when Nokia downsized five years ago, in the wake of its iPhone-induced, Microsoft-accelerated smartphone collapse. All those ex-Nokia engineers didn't leave town. They stayed. They built startups. And then they hired more people.
The startup scene in Oulu didn't happen all on its own. Finland has an intense level of public-private funding, with public money seeding venture funds that can then spread their wings privately. That's what happened with Butterfly Ventures, a major local VC.
"The city of Oulu, they wanted to create a venture capital fund … [and] there was a little bit of European Union money," founder Juho Risku said. With public money backing Butterfly, Risku could introduce an "asymmetric model" to attract private investors, making sure that the private investors get paid back first. While that kind of incentive might not be needed in Silicon Valley, it's helped the more nervous Finns get more deeply into startups.
"People in Finland have been a bit risk averse, traditionally, but that has changed a lot in the past five years," Risku said.
Tekes, the "Finnish funding agency for innovation," pitches in money, while the local university and its hospital also play a big role. It's a public university, remember. Over a weekend in Oulu, hacker teams from around the world pitched their ideas for prizes at the university's 5GFWD hackathon, with the winner coming all the way from New Delhi to show off his image-based indoor navigation solution.
So What's 5G For?
Over and over again during the weekend in Oulu, I kept asking companies: What are you going to use 5G for?
At the city's market square on one bright morning, I strapped on a Samsung Gear VR headset to watch a 360-degree live feed beamed over the city canal at 1.6Gbps. It was like teleportation. And as I looked at various businesses and buildings, little pop-ups showed sales specials, temperature, or the number of people walking over the bridge.
That's just VR. "Just," right? It's crazy science-fiction living, and at this point it's "just." The morning demo's point was not to show what you could do with 5G as much as to show that you could do it—not in a lab but downtown in a busy, chaotic environment full of 4G and Wi-Fi and other unexpected, invisible obstacles. The test shows a big part of what makes Oulu special: anyone with a dollar, a dream, and the email address of the right person at the local university can sign up to use the public "5G test network."
Those dreamers included Hendrik Schneider and Niina Sormunnen, two Finnish students who met at the hackathon. Their idea, known as Therecare, helps parents whose babies are stuck in incubators.
These babies are already covered in sensors and monitors, so Therecare gives parents a cylindrical pillow and a pair of AR glasses. The pillow, which is about the size and weight of a baby, is internally warmed to the baby's body temperature, and might even produce a "heartbeat" or "breathe" thanks to vibrating motors. Put on the glasses, and you'll "see" the kid you can't touch. As the baby is fragile, it won't feel you, but your voice could be transmitted into the incubator.
"With air, we are projecting your own child into your arms," Schneider said poetically. You can't do this with 4G, because the bandwidth isn't reliable enough right now.
The themes of "VR for health" and "VR for education" kept coming up over and over again in Oulu. At Oulu University Hospital, which has a test lab with mockups of hospital rooms for tech firms to try out their solutions, Jussi Auvinen, head of Peili Vision, put another Gear VR on my face. This one put me in a virtual world where I tried to shoot at targets with my eyes. This is, amazingly, stroke rehab: His software checks to see whether anything is neurologically missing from your field of vision and provides updates to your doctors.
With 5G, VR rehab could come home, or it could go to people in rural areas who don't have a lot of available doctors. 5G headsets would have connectivity embedded, making them push-button rather than needing configuration and Wi-Fi setup and broadband.
"We've done this in face-to-face therapy now, but we're starting in September to do this remotely. In virtual reality, when you go a few steps forward, you need low latency," Auvinen said.
And before you start sniping about coverage, T-Mobile is on it: It has proposed the first rural 5G network in the US, on its new 600MHz spectrum. Think 2019-2020 for that one.
They also print electronics in Oulu, which may come in handy when you need, say, a million connected bandages. At VTT, a government research center in town, I heard about "smart bandages" and printed antennas. Apparently, right now we can print small, flexible batteries that, alas, aren't rechargeable. But combine them with low-power networks, printed sensors, and printed antennas, and you have a patch that you can slap on a wrist or a wound to monitor how your healing is going—and that you can throw out afterwards.
Flexible chips being developed in Oulu, which could be used in wearables or bandages.
Maybe you need something more frivolous: How about Gameflix, a mobile game streaming/rental service? Game streaming isn't a new idea—plenty of people do it on the desktop—but the 5G concept here is that current mobile networks aren't low-latency enough for it to work properly, and the streaming traffic can overwhelm current networks.
"Bandwidth and latency are the big barriers," Glyn Faulkner from the Gameflix team told me. "We also needed our own dedicated router to handle all the traffic."
One of the guys on that team was a part-time furniture mover, so there's that.
The New Manufacturing Won't Save Old Jobs
5G will create new industries. It'll create new opportunities. It'll probably create new jobs. But they won't look like the old ones, as I saw at Oulu's biggest tech factory.
5G is going to require billions of dollars of new equipment, and that's being made in Oulu, too. But the definition of "manufacturing job" is going to be different in the 5G era. You see that in Nokia's shiny factory, where it's putting together new 5G base stations that look more like Scandinavian-design panel lights than the giant white blocks you see stuck to the sides of buildings right now.
Nokia is still the biggest single private employer in Oulu, with 2,350 people making base stations and working on 5G. But walk onto the factory floor, and you'll wonder where all the people are.
When I saw Samsung's Galaxy S8 production line in Gumi, Korea, I thought it was the most advanced I'd ever seen. In a Chinese factory, you still see long rows of workers screwing things in—it's the old assembly-line model. In Gumi, most of the components were placed by robots. Humans do only the most delicate, pressure-sensitive tasks, like snapping things together so they don't break. Humans also need to test the phones, making sure they work in ways humans appreciate.
At Nokia in Oulu, even that's gone. It's almost all robots. The humans feed the machines, big reels of tape and chips and stacks of circuit boards, and the robots take it from there: swiveling arms pop boards together, screw in screws, and even run the verification tests.
That's the trade-off, factory head Erja Sankari explained as we watched two robot arms swiftly fold and pack cardboard boxes. If you want to build your gadgets in Finland—or in the US, for that matter—you're going to have to focus on quality and automation to keep up with lower-cost countries.
"We can now manufacture [cellular base stations] with robots. We don't need to do any hand work. We can place all the components with placement machines, all connectors are press-fit, and we only have one screw type," she said. "With this newest platform product we just ramped up, we are competitive with Eastern Europe to manufacture these products, which in history wasn't the case."
5G is just going to accelerate this trend. At a keynote at the EuCNC conference in downtown Oulu, Nokia Bell Labs fellow Peter Vetter explained how the super-low latency of 5G allows for auto-reconfiguring, high-precision factories. You need one-millisecond latency for a robot arm to place a component in a 1mm space, Vetter said. While factories are wired together now, making them wireless lets them reconfigure easily. A factory could make a different product every week, swiveling and rolling devices around to constantly rebuild its assembly line.
"With 5G technology you can do this over a wireless network, and then you have more flexibility over your factory floor," Vetter explained.
Sankari talked about the "dark factory" of the future, where you won't even need people walking around supplying raw materials to the robots. "People are picking the material and creating the setup. Robots can do that," she said.
That means future American factory workers aren't going to be putting in screws or even welding. They're going to be monitoring and managing the robots.
We've also been hearing a lot about autonomous cars and trucks enabled by low-latency 5G connections. At the 5G conference, Matti Latva-Aho from the University of Oulu mentioned that Rolls Royce is looking at putting a fully autonomous cargo ship on the seas by the end of 2019 (above). That means we won't need truck drivers or sailors.
"If you look at the hierarchy of human needs, what we're trying to do is to reduce the time in the lower layers—transportation and whatnot —to create more time in those upper human needs; the ability to learn, spending time on aesthetics, helping others to learn, spending time with family," Vetter said.
Of course, he made that statement in Scandinavia, a place notorious for public support, public health care, and public funding. Take the truck-driver jobs out of Finland, and the society there might find some way to support people. Take the industrial jobs out of Ohio, and apparently what we get are opioid epidemics.
Oulu's a nice place to live. A beautiful stream with little waterfalls runs right through downtown. It has a Nepalese restaurant and the Air Guitar World Championships. Marilyn Manson is playing there this summer, because, you know, Finland is metal. The local cuisine is focused on fish and fresh greens and maybe a little too much reindeer. It has "bicycle highways." The teenagers loitering outside the mall look really harmless.
But Oulu could have failed in the wake of the Nokia evaporation. The town managed to pull off its reinvention into 5G-ville by staying smart. It's been a factory town and a manufacturing town, but it doesn't seem like a screws-and-bolts town. If it was, it went back to school and figured out how to build medical devices.
My flight to Helsinki was delayed three hours in what's nowadays par for the course at JFK Airport, in a "summer of hell" for New York City infrastructure, where our main train station is crumbling so badly that it has to be partially shut down for repairs. The city, state, and federal governments pass the buck; the President's "infrastructure week" went by without any proposals, and the governor is more interested in cutting ribbons on new bridges than on fixing what's breaking. This in a country where our infrastructure was once world-class and where public support for science and technology led to the creation of the internet.
Oulu's public-private partnerships show it's impossible to unravel technology from politics, or at least from society. Through ventures like Tekes and Butterfly, Oulu shows that it's looking forward, not back—making things greater, not great the way they once were.
Ouluans could have stamped their feet and demanded that someone make Nokia great again, but that is impossible. Instead, they made new things, but with the help of a public university, a public technology research center, and a public venture fund. It's actually very similar to the model the US used in the 1950s and 1960s, when universities and research corporations such as RAND worked with the "military-industrial complex" to build computers and put men on the moon.
Could Finland's model be duplicated in the US? Maybe, if we focus on being smart and acknowledge that we can't bring back old jobs, but we can create new ones. There are places in the US we're starting to see that happen—in Pittsburgh, for instance, where health-tech and autonomous car development may show a future for when the shale gas dries up. Universities and hospitals can help lead the way.
The 5G world is coming. It's a world of startups, robots, software, and services. Our cities can join it or be left behind. There's no stopping it. Oulu sees that.