Digital transformation and the store of the future are impossible without advanced data networks. Fortunately, broadband is evolving and the impending rollout of 5G will be a gamechanger, one that will support the next generation of retail services and in-store innovations.
Here’s why this matters: As a quick exercise, I recently made a list of in-store functions and services that require WAN broadband. I started with store data backup and web access for associates. I continued with WiFi for customers, mobile POS and a host of back-office applications. Then I started ticking off things like IoT devices, video surveillance, and shopper tracking to name a few. The list reached 25 before I stopped.
Not every retailer will implement every one of these functions and services, but many are considered essential for improving operational performance (such as real-time inventory, loss prevention, and personalized marketing) or customer satisfaction (omnichannel engagement and guest WiFi) or employee efficiency (mobile POS and continuous training).
One final point about my list (or anyone’s list) of WAN-supported retail functions and services – it will not get shorter any time soon.
Pathway to 5G
As a result of their increasing reliance on advanced data networks, retailers have to begin (if they haven’t already) planning for their pathway to 5G WAN. The first step is to optimize or upgrade their current WAN for 4G LTE and Gigabyte Class LTE.
I was recently on a webinar devoted to this topic, which included expert guidance by Chris Rorris, solution architect manager, for Cradlepoint. Rorris is an outstanding resource in the field of data networks. In the webinar, Rorris outlined many practical tips and use-case examples for creating a roadmap to 5G-ready infrastructure.
For those who want to view an on-demand playback of the webinar and hear the complete list of tips and best practices from Rorris click here.
After cutting through the carrier hype about what is and what is not true 5G capability, I have highlighted some key takeaways that every retailer should know as they plan their deployment timeline to the next generation of data networks:
- For network carriers, 5G means higher connection density (10X connection density) and much higher traffic capacity (100X traffic capacity). The 5G network is simply more efficient in terms of network efficiency (100X) for optimizing energy consumption and for spectrum efficiency (3X). All of this combines to enable network operators to provide retailers with an improved, more consistent user experience.
- For retailers, 5G means a decrease in latency (10X decrease), much higher performance average upload and download speeds, and higher throughput (10X increase to bring more uniform multi-Gbps peak rates). This vast improvement will enable retailers to deploy a new generation of high-performance applications in their stores.
- Experts believe 5G will usher in new cost models in addition to the dramatic performance improvements. Flat-rate pricing will become a realistic alternative to the current usage fee structure for LTE today. The reason is that data networks will become much more able to manage the increases in peak usage.
- Retailers should not sit back and wait until 5G WAN is widely available. To remain competitive, retailers need to increase their bandwidth now to drive new applications and do more in their stores. However, it is important to know that investments already made or investments about to be made won’t be lost when 5G is ubiquitous. This includes investments in traditional 4G LTE (with practical speeds in the 30 mbps download range and 7 mbps upload range) and LTE Gigabyte-class cellular (125 mbps download range and 40 mbps upload range). These networks will continue to be used for offloading network traffic and failover for years to come. So retailers can continue to use these networks even as they move down the path toward 5G.
- 5G will enable retailers to use cellular WAN as their primary network connection or create an all-wireless network versus a combination of wired and wireless. High-performance applications can be deployed in stores with 5G without fear of problems caused by variable data speeds and latency. As 5G becomes the primary network, current investments in 4G and LTE can be used as separate networks for failover.
- Timeline for 5G: Today, Gigabyte LTE is available in many markets and, in fact, most of the major markets have it such as Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, New York, Washington D.C., Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Performance has met expectations in these locations and will get better when true Gigabyte LTE is rolled out. Widespread 5G rollout will start in earnest in late 2020 and extend into 2021.
So, we are still two years out before 5G is expected to be everywhere. For planning purposes, a three-year timeline is probably a realistic target.
3 steps to take now: 1. Make investments in 4G and Gigabyte LTE technology, 2. Become closely aligned with your carrier’s rollout plans, and 3. Work with network partners to test new technologies on your existing platform.
In retail tech implementation terms, the rollout of 5G wireless networks, scheduled for 2021, is virtually right around the corner.