CE Week 2019 Opening Keynote Zeros In on 5G’s Impact on Retail
While plenty of products were on display in the Javits Center during the opening day of CE Week 2019, the conference program at the show also got under way—and the day’s opening keynote panel presentation (which included your’s truly) zeroed in on the slow and steady rollout of the 5G network and its impact on the retail experience. Moderated by CNET senior reporter Maggie Reardon, the two of us were joined on stage by Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies and a frequent contributor to various consumer tech publications, and Michele Dupré, group president of Verizon Business Group, and the discussion hit on nearly every aspect of what 5G will bring to the table as well as the challenges that the entire supply chain faces in successfully bringing the tech to market.
Throughout the course of the discussion, and in between the peppering of questions directed at the sole carrier representative on stage, the consensus was reached that we all anticipate a massive amount of potential in 5G, but it’s still too early to tell what that potential will actually look like, and how long it will take before the vast majority of the American public—from a business or consumer perspective—will be able to take advantage of, or have access to, those services.
Though doing so is a disservice to the technology, the easiest way that you can boil down 5G is to say that there are really two major improvements that the new network with bring to both consumers and businesses. The first, as has often been discussed, is super fast upload and download speeds. But, arguably, more important than the speed improvement is the reduced latency that 5G will offer. Latency, simply put, is the time between when a request is made (either via a button press, sensor receiving some alert, etc.) to when the associated action is executed. Combined, those major improvements will open doors to potential in-store and in-home benefits that we can’t even fathom as of yet. Some of the in-home benefits, which we’ve previously touched on, will include the ability to stream 8K content (when that becomes available several years down the road), the proliferation of autonomous driving systems (buoyed by the improved low latency), and the expansion of AR and mixed reality applications on phones or in smart glasses.
For the retailer, as was discussed on the panel, 5G opens up a world of possibilities from both a logistical standpoint, and when it comes to servicing the customer. Logistically, it all boils down to speed—being able to more quickly and seamlessly achieve a responsible and ultra-efficient manufacturing and delivery process and the like. From an in-store perspective, 5G could unlock shopping experiences that are so tailored to the individual, thus putting a stop to any concerns that the physical store is dying. The one example that stands out from the discussion of 5G’s possible impact on the shopping experience relates to a grocery setting, but helps sell the technology. Imagine walking into a grocery store, looking for an item, being guided to the exact location via in-store directions that are displayed in AR on a smartphone or through a smart glasses experience, and when you get to the item—maybe a container of medicine or vitamins—the ingredients are displayed there in front of you, and instantaneously, you’re alerted to potential ingredients in the product that could flare up some allergy that you have, thus preventing you from a scary medical emergency.
That’s the promise of 5G.
It’s a rosy kind of scenario that we painted for the audience. But, on the other side of that, expectations certainly had to be tampered. With a carrier on stage, we were never going to get details around pricing or when 5G would cover more than just a handful of cities throughout the country. But as the reporters on stage, Reardon and I were certainly a little skeptical about when the 5G network might reach the masses—and that includes the rural areas of middle America.
A recently released Ericsson Mobility Report suggested that 5G will expand “even faster” than previously anticipated with some 1.9 billion subscriptions in place by 2024. That sounds great and all, but that’s still five years away. Carriers and mobile tech companies have been pushing the importance of making the jump to 5G for the better part of the last year and a half, maybe two years even. There’s a clear disconnect between the industry’s expectations and messaging around 5G, and the reality of this rollout. What we don’t want to see is another situation like we had with 4G LTE where a lot was promised and it took years before anything was actually delivered. The industry is tip-toeing a dangerous line right now in that regard.
Lastly, the discussion focused for a little bit on the implications of privacy and data security and where the responsibility lies with regard to keeping consumers informed and safe while still ensuring that retailers can responsibly tap into the full potential of the 5G network. From my perspective, and what I stated on stage, is that the responsibility falls with all parties involved the in the deployment of 5G and how its ultimately used, meaning the carriers, the mobile product manufacturers, and the retailers. Carriers need to ensure, first and foremost, that they’re building secure networks and managing those connections and everything properly. Mobile device makers should follow in step, ensuring that their products are built responsibly and with data privacy and security in mind. And with the retailer, it all comes down to transparency. Despite all of the promise of 5G, they need to be up front and clear with the consumer about what information they’re collecting, how it can be used, and what they’re doing to protect that consumer’s information. It’s likely that, in 2019, consumers are going to be OK with their information being collected—so long as the retailer or business can clearly show how that consumer is benefiting. Retailers need to make clear what benefits the consumer can receive in offering up their information. And then, of course, they need to ensure that they’re properly managing and maintaining that information so as to not put the consumer at risk.
In all, the discussion was a highly thought provoking one that shed a fair amount of light on what 5G will offer to the retail community, while adequately addressing the concerns and hurdles that everyone in the tech space faces with its imminent and ongoing rollout.