Every cellular wireless generation brought new possibilities for business. Mobile apps, streaming video services and smartphones (as we know them today) did not exist a dozen years ago. Now they are part of everyday life. What business ventures will the fifth generation (5G) introduce? Previous changes felt seamless as they happened, but looking back each cellular wireless generation represents a significant impact.
The first generation, 1G, will be remembered as the generation that brought us analog voice on cellular devices. Non-millennials might remember the devices of this generation as car phones, bag phones or the “Brick,” a two-pound cellular phone that was so expensive only the wolves of Wall Street could afford to own one. Nevertheless, it gave employees mobility and untethered the more fortunate from landlines.
2G brought digital voice and text messaging to the world. Call quality was better, meaning users experienced fewer dropped calls. Cellular providers were able to handle a greater capacity of calls and provide better coverage within their network. If it was inconvenient (or rude) to answer a phone call, text messaging was a viable option for instant communication. Lower costs meant more people carried cell phones (now small enough to fit in a pocket), and better coverage meant more reliable communication away from the office.
Up until this point, cellular networks primarily carried voice. 3G enabled mobile data beyond text messaging. Multitasking became commonplace. Standing in line at the grocery store became an opportunity to reply to a work email. Photo messaging and emoticons forever altered the way people communicate, while email marketing reached more people simply because they received a notification on their phone.
Now there is 4G and the continuous internet access it provides. The fourth generation of cellular wireless technology is an innovation ecosystem centered around the smartphone. Speeds, capacity and connection are such that people access the internet on their phones more often than their computers. The resulting changes to corporate life are almost too many to name. In addition to the advent of subscription streaming services like Spotify and Netflix, 4G unleashed an entire industry of mobile apps like Uber, Venmo, Slack and Pokémon Go.
Gallup reported 31 percent of U.S. employees spent more time working away from the office than at the office in 2016. Those numbers were up from 24 percent in 2012. The continuous internet access of 4G has been foundational for telecommuters who use it for video conferencing, collaboration apps and communication with team members all over the world. 4G also provided the infrastructure necessary for beacon technology that enables location-based marketing and creating an inaugural version of the Internet of Things (IoT). eMarketer predicts that spending on digital advertising will surpass that of traditional ads this year (2019), with a continued trajectory of widening the gap in years to come.
Socially speaking, the video capabilities of smartphones on 4G were a catalyst for the birth of crowdsourced news coverage and social media politics while simultaneously enhancing the globalization phenomenon Thomas Friedman foresaw in his 2005 book, The World is Flat.
5G expands the 4G innovation ecosystem beyond the smartphone to other connected things, like cars and glasses. Commercialization of 5G began in 2018 and will ramp up in 2019, hitting its stride in 2020. The technology itself (already being field tested in certain cities) boasts greater capacity, lower latency and faster speeds. 5G devices are already entering the market. While the technological innovations and business opportunities 5G will birth are not yet fully known, the groundwork for others already exists.
Where 4G IoT connected users to machines, the 5G version of IoT will support communication between machines. This fuels the race toward autonomous cars, personal robots, telemedicine and smart cities. 5G will expand the prevalence of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), making it possible consumers will one day wear AR smart glasses along with their smartphone.
International businesses can look forward to real-time language translation on smartphones, truly opening up a global market. Doctors will monitor patient health remotely with sensored monitors. Retailers should anticipate AR shoppers who “try before they buy” items like furniture or home decor. There will also be significant growth in eSports as both an industry and a market audience thanks to the lower latency of 5G. As for person to person communication, get ready for 3D hologram calls a la Obi Wan Kenobi.
Will 5G change lives and business? There’s no doubt. The bigger question lies in the specifics of “How?”