The next hub for Technological innovation:
The birthplace of Nokia, Finland is in a great development stage. It’s a perfect example of something America needs more of: a city that reinvented itself after its major industrial employer crashed. If anywhere is 5G Town, it’s Oulu, in Finland. It’s home to not just one but three 5G test networks, and it’s where Nokia (still) is building its 5G base stations.
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.
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.
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. All those ex-Nokia engineers didn’t leave town. They stayed. They built startups. And then they hired more people.
So why 5G ?
Many companies and students have brought forth many innovative technologies that would require a lavishly generous bandwidth.
For example there is a very smart product called “Therecare” brought out by two Finnish students. 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. 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.
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.
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.