How Your Organization Should Prepare for 5G Internet Speeds

22 Aug 2016

This is the first article in a new series, Early Expert. The idea is simple: We want to become experts in the “next big things” as soon as possible. And we want to share our thinking with you—so that you’ll be prepared to make the most of new technologies and practices. 

I feel the need—the need for speed.

Maverick, Top Gun

You’re spoiled. But not as spoiled as you should be.

On the one hand: In your pocket, right now, sits a miniature computer—about the size and shape of a toaster strudel—that can summon any information from the whole of recorded human civilization by (simply) shooting invisible beams into outer space.

On the other hand: Your smartphone is slower than smartphones in Uruguay.

Mobile Internet in the U.S.A. is the 38th-fastest in the world. If your smartphone is on 4G (aka, the fastest wifi currently available), you’re still greatly outpaced by the speeds in 37 other countries—including technological utopias like the Czech Republic.

So while yes, to someone living 30 years ago, your iPhone or Android (or Blackberry?) is a technical wonder—what Isaac Asimov meant when he said “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—to you, today, sitting at a stoplight in 2016, well … you’re just irritated that that Buzzfeed video about making cauliflower pizza crust isn’t loading instantaneously.

Speed on the Horizon

In July, the FCC adopted rules that will allow 5G mobile Internet to flourish in the coming years—making the U.S. the first country in the world to “set aside airwaves specifically for 5G.” (WBUR

5G is ten times faster than 4G. What takes your smartphone five seconds to load now will, with 5G, load in half-a-second.

Sounds lovely, eh? Sure. But let’s dig in. Let’s explore the implications of 5G wireless—and what it might mean for your business or organization...

The Implications of 5G Wireless Internet

But first, a clarification: The way we name generations of wireless Internet speeds are tied to specific technical standards.

So right off the bat, let’s get clear about our terms:

  • Right now, the fastest wireless speed most of us know is marketed as “4G” but is actually “4G LTE” and isn’t technically 4G.
  • The next speed will be marketed as “5G” but will, in actuality, be simply “true 4G.”

Clear as mud? Great! Let's get to the good bits...

1. Widespread Adoption of Virtual Reality

In 1895, in France, one of the first motion pictures was screened. It was called "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station.” The entire “movie” was just 50 seconds of a train heading toward the camera before slowing, stopping, and letting passengers get off at their stop.

But the legend holds that the moviegoers thought a locomotive was actually headed straight at them. They panicked and fled the theater to avoid being run over by the two-dimensional image.

And like that, virtual reality was born. Then it went mainstream in 1939:

In 2016, people can buy VR headsets at Best Buy. The Oculus Rift and the Samsung Gear VR are on plenty of Christmas lists already.

Soon enough, students will be learning about the first Constitutional Convention by strapping on headgear and sitting across the “table” from “George Washington.” Or sliding down a giant strand of DNA. Or building a combustible engine from the inside.

Eventually, virtual reality will drop the “virtual” part. It’ll be the norm. But right now, in 2016, our relatively primitive wifi speeds mean that virtual reality is limited to large, locally stored files—or short, crude, blurry online videos.

But once 5G arrives, users will be better able to stream virtual reality content, in high enough resolutions to be immersive, over the Web—throwing open the doors to content creators everywhere.

Imagine being Michael Phelps as he wins his 58th gold medal in the 2024 Olympic games. Imagine a small, web-enabled camera attached to his swim cap that allows people across the globe, via a 5G-connected VR headset, to see precisely what he sees as he slices through the water.

The VR hardware exists. The content-makers are poised. Now, we just need our wifi speeds to bridge the gap between possibility and “reality.”

2. Artificial Intelligence Gets Real

Here’s a bad joke:

Siri, Cortana, and Alexa walk into a bar. The bartender asks, “What’ll you have?” Siri, Cortana, and Alexa pause for a few moments while they wirelessly connect with their servers. Eventually, they order the entire Wikipedia page on “Cocktails.”

In other words, artificial intelligence is already here—but both limited wireless connectivity and processing power are keeping it hemmed in.

Q: What’s keeping A.I. from becoming a more common, reliable, integrated part of our daily lives?

A: Speed.

It’s simply quicker to type out a request on an iPhone than to wait for Siri to (maybe) come up with the correct answer. The time it takes for Siri to communicate with the Web—especially when she’s relying on a cellular connection instead of a dedicated wireless network—makes Siri a bauble instead of a new way of living.

But imagine if, the moment you finished asking for something from Siri, the answer was available—and was the type of answer you were looking for. At that point, personal A.I. will go from novel gimmicks to required tools. Though the larger, ever-present question remains: What are humans expected to do with all the time they save with technology?

(Side note: How interesting that the major advancements in machine-learning (i.e., artificial intelligence) are happening in tandem with building out the next generation of the wireless network? In five years, the Internet will probably not only look, but feel, wildly different than it does today.)

3. A Cornucopia of Technical Enhancements

We love chubby dogs. We love watching videos of chubby dogs running and swimming and (barely) jumping.

But when we open a chubby dog video on a smartphone or tablet, we’re accustomed to the video pausing … halfway through … to finish … loading. Gen X’ers know this as “buffering”—and eliminating that lag time is one of many ways that 5G’s 10x speed will enhance our current experience of the Web.

We can also expect:

  • Greater image resolution
  • 4K video as the standard
  • More instant interaction with the Web, including video

(I’m excited about the day when I can click a button on my remote—or, more likely, speak aloud a command—and my TV will switch from the regular view of an NFL game to showing me the view from inside the quarterback’s helmet cam. Live, in real time.)

  • More widespread use of video chatting and other virtual collaboration
  • Greater personalization of the Web

(Imagine driving down an unfamiliar street and Siri chiming in, “Hello, Kimberly. There’s a taco place two minutes away that I think you’ll love. And it won’t hurt your monthly dining budget.”)

  • Wearable computers—including watches, jewelry, shirts and belts, etc.

(Who knows? We might even get a version of Google Glass that doesn’t make everyone hate you.)

  • Holograms

As with every leap in technology, the lightning fast speeds on the horizon will demand a lot of the content-makers—the designers, developers, and businesses that will have to figure out what to make of these new tools at their disposal. And to that point...

How 5G Wireless Internet Will Affect Businesses

Let’s be clear about two things:

  1. Widespread adoption of 5G is probably 3-5 years away.
  2. As with all technical leaps, your organization will either ride the wave as it crests—or you’ll flounder behind the curve, trying to play catch-up (and doing it half-heartedly).

(Don’t believe us about #2? Consider that most business still don’t use social media effectively—and Facebook is more than a decade old.)

5G wireless will offer businesses new ways to connect with their constituents. Which organizations will take advantage of new speeds—and how will they do it? Which businesses will play catch-up and copycat for the next decade? Here are our educated guesses:

Effect #1: Mobile Internet use will fully dominate desktop

A couple of years back, mobile app use became the most popular way Americans access the Internet—overtaking desktops and mobile Web browsing (TechCrunch). The advent of 5G speeds should only quicken the shift toward wireless, on-the-go use of the Web.

Thus, businesses that have long ignored their mobile Web presence will find themselves in an even deeper hole—losing users, sales, and engagement every day they’re not tending to their mobile garden. If the majority of your website’s visitors are using a smartphone, and your mobile website is a mess, you’ll lose them (probably forever).

Another implication to business’ mobile identity: Load time.

A study highlighted at KISSMetrics shares some sobering statistics: 

  • 3 out of 4 users report encountering a mobile website that was too slow to load.
  • Half of users indicate that page load time on mobile devices is important to their loyalty to a website.
  • Most users will abandon a mobile website if it takes more than 10 seconds to full load.

Read that last one again.

Load times with 3G and 4G are hit or miss. And the larger, more complex a mobile webpage, the longer it takes to load—leading to companies either (a) designing very simple and dull mobile sites or (b) designing media-rich mobile webpages that take forever to load and, thus, irritate users.

Neither option is ideal.

5G promises to make major inroads in page load speed, allowing businesses to create online mobile experiences that are interactive and laden with videos and high-resolution images.

And frankly, 5G will mean that Web designers (like us) will, more and more often, design the mobile version of your website first.

Effect #2: Mobile Collaboration & Distributed Workforces Gain Popularity

Already, plenty of companies—especially smaller, more technologically inclined service firms—are choosing to abandon their brick-and-mortar offices in favor of a “distributed workforce,” in which employees work from their homes 100% of the time. To make this work, companies rely on online collaboration tools like GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, HipChat, etc.

Given that an office lease is usually the second largest business expense behind payroll, getting rid of the office altogether is understandably attractive.

But plenty of organizations are hesitant to make this (radical-but-money-saving) change because of a distrust in the Web’s ability to keep the company connected and productive. Without a reliable, speedy Internet connection, a distributed workforce would become less efficient—and thus more expensive.

After all, how many meetings spend the first 10 minutes getting all the participants logged into the screenshare and dialed in to the conference line? 5G might make telecommuting the new normal. 

an example from here at TradeMark Media...

  • We design and build websites and applications. Collaboration is integral to the success of our projects. Without it, our websites are less effective and more expensive.
  • And moreover, our collaboration is very tactile—i.e., we move around the room, we sketch out ideas on white boards, we turn to our teammate at the next desk and ask a question on a whim, we use our hands and bodies to illustrate our thinking, etc.
  • In other words, emails alone wouldn’t do the trick. We need to see each other, to all work on a single design mockup simultaneously. We need to feel as if we are working together instead of simply writing more emails. And while the recent addition of Google Fiber to our offices has helped with our online collaboration, we’re simply not confident enough in the speed of the Internet to handle all of our work remotely.

Moving from an “onsite” to a “distributed workforce” carries with it countless other considerations—e.g., management restructuring, staff recruiting, customer service protocols, logistical scheduling, client interactions, etc. But perhaps companies can begin solving these challenges now, safe in the knowledge that a robust and lightning-fast Internet is on the horizon.

Effect #3: Heightened User Expectations

Humans are remarkably adaptive creatures. We reset our expectations constantly and quickly. This will surely hold true for 5G: When your users have near-instantaneous access to all online content, they will quickly take that as the new norm—and punish those who don’t keep up.

As 5G speed allows the Web to grow more sophisticated and fun, a gap will begin to emerge—between the “new” mobile Web, where interactions are seamless and engaging, and the “old” mobile Web, which is trapped in … well … 2016.

Companies serious about their online future will need to invest in designing, developing, and continuously enhancing their mobile website, apps, digital content, media, and online marketing efforts. But making such an investment now and in the coming years will pay significant dividends when your organization finds itself on the “good” side of the 5G gap, capturing those customers and users that have been abandoned by your competitors who didn’t adequately prepare.

Then there are digital agencies like ours…

With the immense possibilities that 5G will open, we’ll need to rethink how we design and build online experiences.

Design often lags behind technology. (Remember those atrocious America Online webpages, anyone?!?) So we must begin inventing, evaluating, and experimenting with smart UX design in a super-fast world—and we must begin yesterday.

Effect #4: Robots

In about ten years, this article will be written by a computer. No humans necessary. Which means we should all probably learn sustainable urban gardening.

The Verdict on 5G (For Now)

The next 5-10 years of the Internet will belong to those people and organizations that seize the possibilities that 5G mobile Internet will offer. It will reward businesses that jump in, invest time and money, and begin generating world-class content and user experiences.

We feel the need for speed. And speed is coming.

Additional Reading