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June 25, 2019
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KZen raises $4 million to bring sanity to crypto wallets

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KZen, a company run by former TC editor Ouriel Ohayon, has raised $4 million in seed to build a “better wallet,” obviously the elusive Holy Grail in the crypto world.

Benson Oak Ventures, Samsung Next, Elron Ventures invested.

Ohayon, who has worked at Internet Lab and founded TechCrunch France and Appsfire, wanted to create an easy-to-use crypto wallet that wouldn’t confound users. The company name is a play on the Japanese word kaizen or improvement and it also points to the idea of the zero-knowledge proof.

Omer Shlomovits, Tal Be’ery, and Gary Benattar are deep crypto researchers and developers and helped build the wallet of Ohayon’s dreams.

“We wanted something that did not feel like a pre-AOL experience, that was incredibly superior in terms of security, and simple to use,” he said. “We wanted a solution that brings peace of mind and that did not force the user into compromising between convenience and security which is, unfortunately, the current state of affairs. We quickly realized that this mission would not be possible to achieve with the same tools and ideas other companies tried to use so far.”

The app is launching this month and is being kept under wraps until then. Ohayon is well aware that the world doesn’t need another crypto wallet but he’s convinced his solution is the best one.

“The market does not lack solutions,” he said. “On the contrary, there are software wallets, hardware wallets, paper wallets, vaults, hosted custody. But there is no great solution. To be able to use a crypto wallet you either need a good dose of Xanax or a master’s degree in computer science or both, unless you want to depend on a central entity, which is even worse as the news are reminding us weekly.”

We’ll see as they use the cash to launch a crypto wallet that anyone – not just Xanax-eaters – can use.

Happy anniversary, Android

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It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5S and 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Pixel

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

Samsung Galaxy Watch review

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The industry is forever chasing the Apple Watch. After all, the smartwatch has been a rare bright spot in a plateauing wearables category. Even Fitbit recently found itself heading in that direction, finding a fair bit of success with the Versa.

Samsung’s approach, on the other hand, has always been very, well, Samsung. The company’s watches are big, hulking things, covering chrome with a kind of Swiss Army knife approach customary of its various other products.

Announced alongside the Note 9, the Galaxy Watch wasn’t the departure many expected. While the name implied a potential shift toward Android Wear, the company is intent on sticking with Tizen. And why not? Samsung’s spent a lot of time making Tizen its own — multiple generations have been devoted to tweaking the operating system to its specifications.

It’s the result of a pretty clear cost-benefit analysis. The biggest drawback of not embracing Wear OS is the relative lack of third-party app support on Tizen. The biggest advantage: support for Samsung’s unique bezel-based navigation. To this day, it’s the best of the bunch, beating the more finicky crown control most of the competition relies on. It was an early choice for the company and continues to be one of the best elements of Samsung’s watches.

That’s as solid a foundation as any, really. Several different models have helped the company fine-tune its watch offerings, including last year’s Gear Sport, which finally found Samsung introducing a much more manageable 42mm model. It was the first such device from the company that recognized not every user is looking to place a massive device on their wrist.

The fact that there’s been a name change here owes much more to branding than it does any sort of radical departure on the hardware side. Instead, the watch is more of a fine-tuning for the line. Multi-day life aside, there’s not enough here to justify an upgrade for those who own a recent generation, but over the course of several years, Samsung has slowly been fine-tuning one of the better smartwatches in the game.

I wore the Galaxy Watch around for a few days, and used every opportunity I could to quiz others on their thoughts about the aesthetics. The results were largely positive. I don’t know that any onlookers were particularly wowed, but in most cases folks said they would consider wearing the watch. That’s certainly something.

Samsung’s among the companies that have subscribed to the notion that smartwatches ought to look like watches — an entirely different school than the Apple Watches and Fitbit Versas of the world. If I’ve had one complaint about the company’s design choices, it’s the push toward over-detailing — all of the numbers and notches. The design language clearly draws inspiration from sport watches.

For me, the pinnacle of the line was the hyper minimalist S2. It was subtle, modern and went pretty well with just about anything else you had on, from work to work out. Samsung, clearly, has gone in an altogether different direction here, targeting those who have a fondness for the classic outdoor style from companies like Casio. That said, the design is thankfully more subtle than past versions (see: the Gear S3 Frontier).

More importantly, in terms of appealing to a wider audience, the watch finally gets two distinct sizes — 42 and 46mm. The groundwork for the decision was laid with the last year’s Gear Sport, which brought a smaller size into the mix. The addition of the 42mm case makes the Sport somewhat redundant, though the company tells me it’s keeping it around for the time being.

It’s a smart move on Samsung’s part. By just going large with the watch, the company was ceding a large potential user base to Apple, including a big portion of female smartwatch wearers. Now that Fitbit is serious about smartwatches, the company clearly needs to do more to appeal to a larger segment of Android users.

The company’s watches have always felt large on me, and I’m around six feet tall. When I asked smaller colleagues to try them out, they looked downright cartoonish. The 42mm version fits much more comfortably on my wrist — though if you have a smaller stature, I’d strongly encourage finding a store and trying one on first. Even the smaller version is by no means compact.

The spinning bezel is back, because of course it is. It’s long been the best part of Samsung’s watches. It’s also the best smartwatch control mechanism in the industry, including Apple’s crown. It’s swift, it’s smooth and it’s much easier to use when exercising. That said, I still find myself using the side buttons with more frequency — they’re a much easier way to get where you’re going quickly.

The bezel is apparently the main reason for keeping Tizen around — Wear doesn’t support that sort of input method. And honestly, it’s a pretty good justification. Besides, Samsung’s done a lot to tweak the operating system to its specifications, and we’ve got a pretty good and well-rounded wearable operating system as a result.

There are a number of good reasons to go with Google’s OS, including better Android integration and a more robust app store, but Samsung’s always been interested in developing its own ecosystem — and besides, Tizen isn’t broken, so Samsung ain’t fixing it, as the saying goes.

Exercise tracking is another bit that’s benefited from several generations of tweaks. Fitness is pretty widely understood as the primary driver of smartwatches’ purposes, in spite of the existence of fitness trackers, and as such, all the major players are constantly attempting to one-up one another.

There’s nothing exceptional here on the exercise side, but the Galaxy watch is a workhorse. There’s autotracking on board and 40 trackable exercises. I’m a runner, and found the tracking to work pretty well, along with plenty of reminders to get off my lazy ass. Not great for my self-esteem, but good for my waistline, I suppose.

There’s sleep tracking on board, as well, though that’s become a pretty standard feature across all of these devices. More compelling is the addition of stress tracking. The feature reads the wearer’s vital signs to paint an overall picture of their mood. I’m sure the science behind all of this is lacking, and it generally read me as “neutral” (which, as anyone who has ever met me will tell you isn’t the best word).

That said, I’m sure there’s something in the psychology of it all. Like Fitbit and Apple’s reminders to breathe, there’s something to be said in the simple act of taking a moment to recognize your mood. Like a meditation body scan that reminds you that you’re constantly clenching your jaw, focusing on your mood and breathing goes a surprisingly long way toward de-stressing.

The Galaxy Watch isn’t the revolution Samsung suggested (but marketers are gonna market). That the company spent so little time on the product during the recent Note 9 event was at least partially a product of the fact that it’s more fine-tuning than anything else. There is, however, one piece that really stands out — and it’s perhaps the largest quibble with the smartwatch category of all.

Samsung says the 42mm’s 270 mAh battery will get you up to three days of life and the 46’s 472 mAh will get you up to four. That’s a bit of wishful thinking in my experience, but it’s not far off. Wearing the watch straight both day and night, I was able to squeeze just over two and a half days — pretty impressive, so far as smartwatches go. It’s also a bit of a necessity for something designed to be worn to bed.

It’s the best addition to the watch this time out. It’s not enough to help the device truly stand out from an overcrowded and underselling category — especially one where a single player is utterly dominating the sales charts. But Samsung’s still got one of the better devices in the game.

The pricing remains, well, pricey. The 42mm runs $329 and the 46mm is $349. It’s an additional $50 to upgrade either one to LTE. That puts the product roughly on par with the Apple Watch. From an Android user’s perspective, however, the real competition is the far cheaper ($200) Versa. Things have shifted a bit since Samsung’s last major watch release, with Fitbit becoming the major player in the Android-compatible smartwatch field. Samsung’s at a bit of a crossroads.

For now, the company seems content to go directly after Apple. Competing on that field is going to take some serious innovating. The Galaxy Watch isn’t that, but it’s a perfectly solid choice for Android users.

Huawei bags Apple’s 2nd place spot in global smartphone sales: Gartner

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Another analyst has Huawei overtaking Apple in the global smartphone rankings for the second quarter this year. The latest figures from Gartner put Huawei ahead on sales to end users in Q2.

Overall, Gartner says sales of smartphones to end users grew 2% in the quarter, to reach 374 million units.

The analyst pegs the Chinese smartphone maker with a 13.3% marketshare, saying it sold ~49.8M devices in the quarter, up from 9.8% in the year before quarter — ahead of Apple, which it calculates took an 11.9% marketshare (down from 12.1% in Q2 2017), selling ~44.7M iPhones.

According to Gartner’s figures, Samsung also lost share year-over-year — declining 12.7% in the quarter.

The Galaxy smartphone maker retained its no.1 spot in the rankings, with 19.3% in Q2 (vs 22.6% in the equivalent quarter last year) and ~72.3M devices sold. Though Gartner notes it’s being squeezed by “ever-growing competition from Chinese manufacturers”, while slowing demand for its flagships are squeezing its profitability. Not a happy combination.

In recent years Huawei has been one of a handful of Chinese OEMs bucking the trend of a slowing global smartphone market. And Gartner’s data suggests Huawei’s smartphone sales grew 38.6 per cent in the second quarter.

As we noted earlier this month, when other analysts reported Huawei outstripping Apple on smartphone shipments in Q2, the handset maker has built momentum for its mid-range Honor handset brand while performing solidly at the premium end too, with devices such as the P20 Pro (albeit while copypasting Apple’s iPhone X ‘notch’ screen design in that instance.)

“Huawei continues to bring innovative features into its smartphones and expand its smartphone portfolio to cover larger consumer segments,” said research director Anshul Gupta in a statement. “Its investment into channels, brand building and positioning of the Honor devices helped drive sales. Huawei is shipping its Honor smartphones into 70 markets worldwide and is emerging as Huawei’s key growth driver.”

For Apple the quarter was a flat one (0.9% growth), though that’s to be expected given Cupertino structures its mobile release cycle around a big-bang annual smartphone refresh in the fall, ahead of the holiday quarter, rather than releasing devices throughout the year.

Even so, Gupta noted that Apple is also facing growing competition from Chinese brands, which in turn is amping up pressure on the company to innovate its handsets to keep increasingly demanding consumers happy by delivering “enhanced value” in exchange for the iPhone’s premium price.

And recent reports have suggested Apple is prepping a number of iPhone design changes for fall, including a splash of color.

“Demand for the iPhone X has started to slow down much earlier than when other new models were introduced,” he added, sounding another note of concern for Apple.

Fourth placed Chinese OEM Xiaomi is one device maker putting pressure on longer term players in the smartphone market. In Q2 Gartner reckons the company sold ~32.8M devices, carving itself an 8.8% marketshare — up from 5.8% in the year ago quarter.

The analyst’s data also shows Google’s Android operating system further extending its lead over Apple’s iOS in Q2, securing 88% market share vs 11.9% for iOS.

While the smartphone market is no longer a simple duopoly on the device maker front, with Huawei elbowing past Apple to bag the second spot in the global rankings, it remains very much the opposite story where smartphone operating systems are concerned.

And Gartner’s data now records the ‘other’ category of smartphone OSes at a 0.0% marketshare, down from 0.1% in the year ago quarter…

Making way for new levels of American innovation

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New fifth-generation “5G” network technology will equip the United States with a superior wireless platform unlocking transformative economic potential. However, 5G’s success is contingent on modernizing outdated policy frameworks that dictate infrastructure overhauls and establishing the proper balance of public-private partnerships to encourage investment and deployment.

Most people have heard by now of the coming 5G revolution. Compared to 4G, this next-generation technology will deliver near-instantaneous connection speed, significantly lower latency – meaning near-zero buffer times – and increased connectivity capacity to allow billions of devices and applications to come online and communicate simultaneously and seamlessly.

While 5G is often discussed in future tense, the reality is it’s already here. Its capabilities were displayed earlier this year at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where Samsung and Intel  class=”m_4430823757643656150MsoHyperlink”>showcased a 5G enabled virtual reality (VR) broadcasting experience to event goers. In addition, multiple U.S. carriers including Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have announced commercial deployments in select markets by the end of 2018, while chipmaker Qualcomm unveiled last month its new 5G millimeter-wave module that outfits smartphones with 5G compatibility.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – 2018/02/26: View of the phone company QUALCOMM technology 5G in the Mobile World Congress.
The Mobile World Congress 2018 is being hosted in Barcelona from 26 February to 1st March. (Photo by Ramon Costa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While this commitment from 5G commercial developers is promising, long-term success of 5G is ultimately dependent on addressing two key issues.

The first step is ensuring the right policies are established at the federal, state and municipal levels in the U.S. that will allow the buildout of needed infrastructure, namely “small cells”. This equipment is designed to fit on streetlights, lampposts and buildings. You may not even notice them as you walk by, but they are critical to adding capacity to the network and transmitting wireless activity quickly and reliably. 

In many communities across the U.S., 20th century infrastructure policies are slowing the emergence of bringing next-generation networks and technologies online. Issues including costs per small cell attachment, permitting around public rights-of-way and deadlines on application reviews are all less-than-exciting topics of conversation but act as real threats to achieving timely implementation of 5G according to recent research from Accenture and the 5G Americas organization.

Policymakers can mitigate these setbacks by taking inventory of their own policy frameworks and, where needed, streamlining and modernizing processes. For instance, current small cell permit applications can take upwards of 18 to 24 months to advance through the approval process as a result of needed buy-in from many local commissions, city councils, etc. That’s an incredible amount of time for a community to wait around and ultimately fall behind on next-generation access. As a result, policymakers are beginning to act. 

13 states, including Florida, Ohio, and Texas have already passed bills alleviating some of the local infrastructure hurdles accompanying increased broadband network deployment, including delays and pricing. Additionally, this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has moved on multiple orders that look to remedy current 5G roadblocks including opening up commercial access to more amounts of needed high-, mid- and low-band spectrum.

The second step is identifying areas in which public and private entities can partner to drive needed capital and resources towards 5G initiatives. These types of collaborations were first made popular in Europe, where we continue to see significant advancement of infrastructure initiatives through combined public-private planning including the European Commission and European ICT industry’s 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership (5G PPP).

The U.S. is increasing its own public-private levels of planning. In 2015, the Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation launched its successful “Smart City Challenge” encouraging planning and funding in U.S. cities around advanced connectivity. More recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded New York City a $22.5 million grant through its Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) initiative to create and deploy the first of a series of wireless research hubs focused on 5G-related breakthroughs including high-bandwidth and low-latency data transmission, millimeter wave spectrum, next-generation mobile network architecture, and edge cloud computing integration.

While these efforts should be applauded, it’s important to remember they are merely initial steps. A recent study conducted by CTIA, a leading trade association for the wireless industry, found that the United States remains behind both China and South Korea in 5G development. If other countries beat the U.S. to the punch, which some anticipate is already happening, companies and sectors that require ubiquitous, fast, and seamless connection – like autonomous transportation for example – could migrate, develop, and evolve abroad casting lasting negative impact on U.S. innovation. 

The potential economic gains are also significant. A 2017 Accenture report predicts an additional $275 billion in infrastructure investments from the private sector, resulting in up to 3 million new jobs and a gross domestic product (GDP) increase of $500 billion. That’s just on the infrastructure side alone. On the global scale, we could see as much as $12 trillion in additional economic activity according to discussion at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in January.

Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” When it comes to America’s technology evolution, this quote holds especially true. Our nation has led the digital revolution for decades. Now with 5G, we have the opportunity to unlock an entirely new level of innovation that will make our communities safer, more inclusive and more prosperous for all.

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