How Will 5G Unlock Location Targeting?

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This post is the latest in our “Targeting Location” series. It’s our editorial focus for the month of March, including topics like location-based ad targeting, attribution, and privacy. See the rest of the series here

Joining the lexicon of tech innovation buzzwords (blockchain, voice-enabled, etc.) is the next inflection in connectivity: 5G. It was the breakout topic of Mobile World Congress last month and has the tech and media worlds buzzing about new capabilities. So naturally, our question is: What will it do for local?

But before we go there, what is 5G exactly? There are some obvious benefits like faster speeds. 5G will be 100x faster than today’s 4G/LTE standard. So with parallel trends in increased mobile data consumption, 5G will reach screaming speeds to enrich our multi-media lives.

But 5G goes far beyond just a speed boost. The quantitative advantages are joined by qualitative factors that will enable all kinds of new consumer use cases and content delivery strategies. This notably includes more precise location tracking/targeting and even some indoor use cases (think: retail).

This starts with the tech itself. 5G is a high-frequency, low-range signal, so base stations will be clustered densely. Instead of cell towers spread out like today, tiny 5G stations will blanket areas in a sort of edge-computing mesh network that distributes bandwidth and processing optimally to each user.

“As we build 5G out, these stations can have compute data centers at their base,” said Deutche Telekom’s Terry Schussler at the AWE conference. “The distribution of that compute is going to be intelligently performed by software that allows the orchestration of where it should come from.”

This allows for those same stations to more accurately triangulate spatial positioning, compared with cell towers today and even GPS. The latter boasts meter-level accuracy, but 5G will have millimeter accuracy in many cases. That unlocks a few new possibilities for content delivery.

For example, AR is a key technology in the future of local commerce. But as we’ve examined, the “AR cloud” is required for devices to accurately recognize their surroundings and anchor graphics accordingly. You don’t want the review for your favorite coffee shop drifting to the nail salon next door.

That involves lots of technologies including computer vision and machine learning. But another key part of the equation is “localization,” (the L in SLAM), which is an AR device’s ability to calculate its own position in space. That’s where 5G’s millimeter-level accuracy will come in handy.

“It will improve the precision of the mobile location by one or two orders of magnitude,” Here Technologies’ Kirk Mitchel told CMS Wire. “We believe that location will play a critical role in … driving the leading use cases of 5G … enabling sub-meter positioning to enable precise location.”

This reaches new levels of value and untapped potential when we bring it inside. Building interiors are still the last frontier when it comes to location tracking, given the drawbacks of GPS. And we all know what happened to beacons. In fact, 5G could step in to fully realize the unfulfilled promise of beacons.

The retail use cases this could unlock involve lots of innovations that are already happening under the “retail as a service (RAAS)” designation. That includes Amazon Go-like capability for cashier-less stores, in-aisle payments, and shopper enablement through emerging technologies like, again, AR.

5G’s targeting precision will bring this retail vision closer to reality. It can enable more reliability in actions like knowing when you’ve put something in your cart. There are other longer-term innovations like identity tracking for payments, targeted in-store messaging, and shopper personalization.

Beyond retail, 5G could also help in the key local subsector of ad targeting and attribution. There’s been a longstanding challenge that location signals are unreliable. Disingenuous ad networks will sell location-targeted ads at a premium, but they could actually be off by miles. 5G could help that.

When looking at leaders in location tracking such as Foursquare, its signature stop data to measure users’ “real stops” at a given business (as opposed to walking by a business) can gain even more reliability.  This will shine in dense urban areas, shopping malls and other commercial zones.

“5G is not inherently focused on location, though the frequency range and likely network deployment topology will improve location capabilities via better triangulation,” Foursquare SVP of engineering Matthew Kamen told me. “Further, increased bandwidth and lower latency will, at some point, reduce restrictions in network communications. That will make it easier for developers to make more frequent and heavier payload requests to servers. All of this is advantageous to us as a location technology platform, as we provide tools for Fortune 500 brands and tech companies wanting to understand and reach audiences as they move through the world.”

As for when? CSS insights projects 340 million 5G connections in 2021, then one billion in the first half of 2023 and 2.7 billion (about a third of the world’s population) by 2025. But one of the bottlenecks is also the hardware: 5G-enabled phones will phase in over the next three years. Then, it’s off to the races.

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at