Marketers Take Note: How 5G and the Shrinking Digital Divide Will Affect You

Mobile World Congress 2016 and the double-sided future of mobile connectivity

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Today’s world is effectively split in two when it comes to digital technologies and mobile access. Only 51% of people worldwide currently use mobile devices, but smartphones and tablets are more or less ubiquitous in the developed world, where their quick adoption has disrupted industries, created more intimate relationships between customers and brands, and begun influencing nearly all aspects of everyday life. In the developing world, however, the impact of mobile has been more muted, hampered by limited wireless bandwidth and the expense of smartphones and other mobile devices.

This digital divide was in evidence during this year’s edition of mobile trade organization GSMA’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) conference and exhibition, held February 22–25 in Barcelona, Spain. While coming innovations in wireless bandwidth and speed were a major focus of the event, there was also significant discussion about how to better reach the billions of people worldwide who currently lack a mobile device or access to the internet.

These two themes have a lot in common. Both will require significant investment and international cooperation to bear fruit, and both have the potential to significantly impact the tools and approaches marketers use to engage their customers.

To help you prepare, let’s dig a little deeper into what those impacts will be and what’s driving them:

The rise of 5G promises faster mobile connections and major increases in bandwidth

Virtual Reality at MWC

MWC attendee using Virtual Reality device (Photo courtesy of Digital Trends)

While the fifth generation of mobile telecommunications technology, better known as 5G, is still years away from widespread availability, MWC 2016 served as a reminder that this technology is going to have a big effect. During the event, a number of technology firms discussed their 5G plans and held demos highlighting this technology’s capabilities. Samsung showcased phones with a 5G connection transmitting up to 2.5 gigabits of data per second, 50 times the speeds seen with 4G. According to The New York Times, future 5G-enabled mobile devices are expected to be able to download a full feature-length movie in less than five seconds, compared to a download time of about eight minutes today.

An international standard providing guidance in implementing 5G technologies on a global scale is expected to be completed in 2019. Ericsson CEO Hans Vestburg said during a panel discussion at MWC that significant adoption of the technology could take until 2021 and argued that 5G would provide “huge efficiency increases,” allowing far more devices to take advantage of wireless networks without leading to bandwidth issues. The major speed and bandwidth improvements promised by 5G are expected to support both significantly richer user experiences on mobile and the planned rollout of a wide array of smart devices, sensors, and other internet-linked objects.

What does that mean for marketers?

New, richer message options

Expect to see the improvement in connection speeds lead to the emergence of new, immersive messaging channels on mobile. With 5G, delivering video messages or virtual reality experiences to your customers’ smartphones could become as easy as sending a push notification is today.

IoT–supported marketing

As 5G’s expanded bandwidth makes it possible for more and more of the toothbrushes, toasters, and other devices we use every day to become part of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT), marketers will gain powerful new tools. These smart devices will provide granular customer behavioral data beyond what’s currently possible, allowing for unprecedented message personalization. Additionally, many of these devices will include messaging capabilities, creating new outreach channels for marketers and making omnichannel marketing strategies even more important.

Zuckerberg, Vodafone’s Colao, and GSMA’s Granryd talk mobile connectivity and the gender gap in the developing world

Facebook's Zuckerberg and Samsung's Koh

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Samsung’s DJ Koh (Photo courtesy of Popular Science)

Two appearances by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg summed up the conflicted feelings toward the future of mobile connectivity on display at MWC. During a Samsung event, Zuckerberg noted the increasing adoption of virtual reality technology by consumers and announced that more than one million hours of virtual reality content has already been viewed on Samsung’s virtual reality-enabled mobile devices. However, in his keynote address at the conference, he expressed “disappointment” in the 5G efforts underway, arguing that focusing on providing improved wireless connections in developed nations shouldn’t take priority over digital access in developing countries. “We need to finish the job of internet access,” he said, citing his company’s sometimes controversial Internet.org initiative and plans to test solar-powered, internet-providing drones as examples of the sort of work that needs to be done.

His concerns echoed remarks by Vodafone Group CEO Vittorio Colao, who called on technology companies, governments, and other organizations to come together to ensure worldwide access to secure, high-speed mobile networks. “We are all working in this direction,” he said. Colao suggested that while achieving this vision would require significant investment and improvements in training and education, it could also lead to new waves of innovation and societal changes.

According to GSMA research, there are 200 million fewer women than men who own a mobile phone in developing countries, and the women who do own phones in these nations are significantly less likely to have access to the mobile web—effectively creating a second, gender-based digital divide. “Ensuring digital and financial inclusion for women is critically important,” GSMA director general Mats Granryd said. “When women thrive, societies, businesses, and economies thrive.” To support efforts to reduce the gender gap in mobile access, GSMA has launched the Connected Women Commitment Initiative, which specifically focuses on improving women’s digital literacy and access in the developing world.

What does that mean for marketers?

New customers, but new challenges

In many developing nations, outdated or insufficient electrical and communications infrastructure prevented the widespread adoption of landline phones and desktop computers. That means that efforts to provide wider, more powerful internet access will lean heavily on mobile to bridge the digital divide. These efforts will likely also create a significant new audience for mobile-focused brands. Marketers who have the tools they need to understand these new customers’ in-app and web activity and then use that data to power personalized, culturally relevant outreach in each customer’s preferred language are going to be well-positioned to build the kinds of durable customer/brand relationships that will allow them to engage, retain, and monetize this new audience over the long term.

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