At a moment’s thought, 5G is great news for publishers. As any publication that’s optimised its site to reduce load times in the past can testify: people hate waiting. A unilateral guarantee that content arrives quicker and works better can’t hurt. Right? Well, as with all things digital publishing, the proliferation of 5G isn’t so black and white. Here, we’ll examine its upsides, explain what publishers should be wary of, and discuss how digital publishers can ensure they’re ready for 5G.

Early 5G tests predict it may offer as much as 20 times the speed and capacity of today’s wireless internet. And yet, a 2019 Accenture survey revealed uncertainty about the next-generation technology, with nearly three-quarters of recipients saying they need help imagining 5G use cases. To dispel any confusion, then, let’s examine the positive impacts we know 5G will have on the digital publishing landscape.

The Pros of 5G for Publishers

First, the International Data Corporation expects 190 million 5G smartphones to ship in 2020, “accounting for 14% of total smartphones shipped, which far exceeds the first year of 4G shipments (2010) at 1.3%.” There’s a benefit already: a greatly increased potential audience. The IDC’s current estimate is that global 5G subscriptions will reach 2.6 billion by the end of 2025, at which point 45% of the world’s mobile data traffic will be handled by 5G.

5G subscription forecast by the year 2025

It’s great news for publishers who serve a lot of video content. In 2019, an Opensignal report proved that “5G boosts the maximum real-world download speed by up to 2.7 times 4G users’ top speeds.” The below graph illustrates 5G’s clear speed advantage over 4G in various countries observed in Opensignal’s test.

Graph illustrating 5G's speed advantage over 4G

Opensignal analyses the end-to-end mobile user’s experience, so these results reflect 5G’s real-world usage pretty accurately. 

In 2019, The New York Times announced the launch of a lab in partnership with Verizon that aims to explore 5G’s possibilities for journalism. Not only does the team expect the new technology to have major positive impacts on the performance of its content for the reader, but for the newsroom itself – specifically, how news is gathered. The New York Times is exploring how 5G can help its journalists automatically stream media like HD photos, videos, audio, and even 3D models back to the Newsroom in real-time, as they are captured. 5G, the team expects, will then help bring that rich and immediate journalism to audiences instantly, in whatever form they require.

Content itself will become more sophisticated. We’ll likely see ultra-high-definition downloads and live streaming across multiple devices. The same goes for audio. Publishers will no longer need to tailor video to mobile audiences; rather, they’ll be able to reuse the content they produce for larger screens now they have the speed to deliver it to mobile, and focus on monetisation.

Publisher Concerns Over 5G

When I began writing this article, I initially mentioned speculation that 5G could offer 100 times the speed and capacity of today’s wireless internet. As time’s gone on, that’s come to look like a pretty optimistic figure, but one that gets to the heart of a concern publishers would be wise to consider: that “5G is likely to make things worse before it makes them better – because users’ expectations will be much higher,” as argued by Marketing, Strategy, Emerging Technology & Innovation Consultant, Jeremy Lockhorn. 

It sounds speculative, but as users begin to accept HD movie downloads going from 7 minutes to 6 seconds as the norm, they’re not likely to wait for static pages – and therefore, ads – to load. This will negatively impact a lot of publishers, who won’t convert if they can’t load.

There’s a handful of advertising issues publishers should be wary of. Mass adoption of 5G isn’t exactly imminent, so digital publishers need to be vigorous in understanding what portions of their audience can and can’t receive richer 5G ads. To quote Lynne D Johnson of Admonsters directly: “The adtech ecosystem—the exchanges, the SSPs, the DSPs and the DMPs—will also need an upgrade in order to complete programmatic auctions in the few milliseconds that 5G should be able to deliver ads. Today, the process is just too slow, and users often turn away, which results in lost revenue.”

A downside to the drastically reduced load times that will come with 5G is the temptation for publishers to be overly liberal with the ads they serve. Publishers mustn’t overdo it, as even greater numbers of users will install adblockers.

Publishers with high numbers of partner vendors likely have excessive code and tags built into their site. For them, load time is an even more significant monetisation factor.

How Publishers can Prepare for 5G

The way your readers use their devices will shift, as with the introductions of 3G and 4G. They’ll now have fibre-like performance in their pockets. As such, there’ll be fewer requirements for publishers using video to prepare content specifically for mobile. It may well be that this need is all but eliminated. 

Dramatically reduced load times and higher resolutions mean advertisers and publishers can expect a new range of ad formats and pricing options.

“Getting really granular with retargeting and hypertargeting is possible right now, but the depth of how we can communicate to consumers will expand, and with the expansion, comes more premium options,” said Chris Neff, senior director of innovation at agency The Community, whose clients include Domino’s, General Mills and Converse, in a Digiday article. However, because the hardware that can handle 5G still needs to be developed, Neff added that marketers should expect 5G’s impact on advertising to be minimal in the next year, but that there’s the potential for “massive change” after that.

Publishers who already have slow page-load times at 4G network speeds should consider that when it comes to page-load times, a poorly executed responsive design can be much worse than a dedicated mobile-optimised site. If they haven’t already, these publishers should seriously consider implementing Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) and Progressive Web Apps (PWA). These approaches can both significantly reduce load time, particularly when working together. But, while we’re on advertising, don’t let developments in ad technology encourage you to ramp up advertising to an annoying degree; you don’t want to inadvertently drive a rise in adblocker downloads. 

Accelerated load times will mean more ads served with far more impressive creative (AR, 3D?). AI may finally have a chance to actually help publishers and brands alike increase their revenues with more plentiful consumer data, behavioural insights, and opportunities for personalisation and customisation for users. That could revolutionise user experience.

The uncertainties of 5G will clear over time. Until then, we urge digital publishers to continue improving their current practices while accelerating their interest in 5G markets. In simple terms, 5G’s not something you want to be late on. The gaps unprepared publishers will leave could make space for some pretty seismic disruptions, the likes of which previously unsettled mature industries like entertainment (iTunes and Netflix) and transportation (Uber and Lyft). If 5G becomes the norm, expect to see entire businesses run on it.