Five Alive: 5G Technology Will Transform Sign & Display

Author: Richard Romano,

What is 5G and what is its impact on sign and display graphics likely to be? Richard Romano spoke with Dexter Johnson, author of a recent ISA white paper called 5G in Signage Technology about the technology and the advantages of 5G and its potential applications in sign and display.

5G and signage lores

One of the most anticipated developments in telecommunications has been the coming of 5G networks. It’s a technology we have been keeping an eye on—and will continue to do so—as it is likely to have a number of important ramifications for the print industry, both good and bad. Future commentary will look at 5G and its impact on other aspects of print, but for this article, we will look at the potential implications of 5G for the signage industry.

“What we know about 5G is that it’s going to be disruptive,” says Dexter Johnson,  contributing editor for the flagship publication of the Institute for Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE), IEEE Spectrum. Johnson is the author of a recent white paper published by the International Sign Association (ISA) called 5G in Signage Technology. “I think 5G is going to change how people entertain themselves through video. It will be important for signs to be involved.” In the white paper, he also talks at length about a “Smart Cities” concept enabled by 5G.

Before we gaze into the future, let’s have a look at the past. What were Gs 1–4 and how does 5G compare?

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash


The first generation of mobile technology (retrospectively called 1G) was launched in 1982. Since then, a new generation has appeared roughly every 10 years; 2G was introduced in 1992, 3G networks appeared in 2001, and 4G in 2012. When 1G and 2G were launched, no one really needed all that much bandwidth on a mobile phone since there really wasn’t anything other than voice that needed to be transmitted. When 3G appeared, the idea was that it would facilitate video conferencing, an application that never quite took off. However, by the early to mid 2000s, a growing application was data, as the first-generation smartphones began to appear. Here’s the rundown:

  • 1G: Up to  2.4 kilobits per second (Kbps). Voice only.
  • 2G: Up to 50 Kbps. Supported SMS and MMS (texting, basically). There were interim 2.5G and 2.75G that gradually boosted capacity.
  • 3G: Up to 2 megabits per second (Mbps). The term “mobile broadband” was first used to describe 3G networks.
  • 4G: Up to 100 Mbps. (Download speed. Upload speeds were up to 50 Mbps.)

So what does 5G get us to? At the least, says Johnson, “a thousand times faster [than 4G]. That’s a number that’s used fairly regularly. That would mean a full two-hour movie could be downloaded onto your mobile device in five seconds.” However, it’s not just speed that’s the primary advantage of 5G. “What’s changing the paradigm is the lack of, or reducing, latency.” Latency is the “time lag” we’ve all experienced when streaming or playing games ostensibly in real-time.

Think about everything you have been able to do on a mobile phone since the advent of 4G—watch videos, stream services Netflix or Hulu, play video games, access augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), and so on. Imagine what exponentially faster mobile connectivity will allow.


The coming of 5G is fairly momentous, not so much because the speeds are faster, but because it requires an entirely new infrastructure. 5G achieves its speed primarily by using an entirely new part of the radio wave spectrum, namely the millimeter wave spectrum, which is completely different than what has come before in previous G networks. This spectrum allows a lot more bandwidth, but also requires new antennas and other hardware, as well as new mobile phones. There are also some inherent problems with the millimeter wave spectrum. “It’s very difficult with the these millimeter wave signals to propagate through buildings or trees,” says Johnson. OK, slight problem, but then we’ve had these issues before in previous generations.

As a result, anyone saying they currently offer true 5G is pulling the virtual wool over your eyes. “Only last year were the specifications for 5G provided to the equipment manufacturers and how the data devices were to be constructed,” says Johnson. “The equipment manufacturers only had really less than a year to work with those specifications, so they are still testing equipment.”

The real rollout that manufacturers are targeting is sometime in 2020. “I don’t think you’re going to see it really make an impact where people are scrambling to get their 5G phones probably until the end of 2020 or in 2021.

So we have some time to prepare a 5G strategy.


As with previous Gs, there are few areas that will be untouched by the coming of 5G, but some of the biggest impacts will be in manufacturing and on the Internet of Things (IoT)—which may very well become inextricably entwined. Writes Johnson in the ISA white paper:

5G could lead the way to new horizons in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and immersive entertainment, in general. Autonomous vehicles could become a more likely scenario. The Internet of Things (IoT), in which all devices are interconnected and communicating with each other, could become an application with tangible benefits in manufacturing.

“The applications for 5G that cross over with sign and display are probably in the areas of the entertainment industry and the Smart Cities,” adds Johnson. “Entertainment is about digital media and digital displays. So it’s clear how that would cross over to signs. It would give you greater access, high-res video, and virtual reality and augmented reality.”

As I have written often, electronic signage has become fairly common—be it LCD-based dynamic digital signage (DDS) or LED displays (see the feature I wrote last summer on LED signage)—and 5G networks will only enable it to proliferate even more. VR and AR have been slow to catch on—admittedly speed and latency are only part of the reason—but if 5G can lead to vastly more compelling scenarios, it could finally be what’s been needed to goose these technologies into the mainstream.


Throughout the white paper, and in our conversation, Johnson is bullish on the idea of Smart Cities. What exactly is “Smart Cities”? He writes:

Fundamentally, Smart Cities involves connecting a multitude of low-power digital devices. These devices help us run our home, offices and the world around us more efficiently, like a refrigerator that reduces its energy consumption when there is less food in it. It is this network of connected devices from which we get the concept—or suite of technologies—known as the Internet of Things (IoT). The Internet of Things has been around—at least in concept—for a while, but the current 4G infrastructure has limited what it could potentially become, particularly in the number of devices that can be supported. 5G will change that,

We will have billions of devices—right down to the sensors used in a multitude of larger devices connected to a very high-speed data network. And this interconnectivity is expected to be one of the first phases of 5G’s rollout.

Consequently, disparate areas such as education, health care, autonomous cars, and signage are impacted. “It is easy to recognize that Smart Cities serves as a connected ecosystem of ecosystems,” Johnson writes.

Smart Cities basically involves devices communicating with each other—and those devices can include signs. “Imagine if your mobile device is connecting to all of the devices in its immediate surroundings,” says Johnson. “You could see a sign that may be just targeted for people in general. Then, as you pass by, it can be targeted specifically for you.” This is not science fiction; we have already seen examples of this—but 5G allows it to be deployed on a much larger scale.

The advantages are legion, but are there any downsides or disadvantages to 5G? “I think a challenge for all industries is how do you stay on top of this technology?” says Johnson. “How do you make sure that you’re at the forefront of the technology and not behind the wave? 5G is going to open up ways of communicating that we can’t really envision now and people are going to be taking advantage of that as it develops and they should to be keen to look for those opportunities early on. That’s more of a challenge than a disadvantage.”

As is inevitably the case, people and businesses will develop unique applications to take advantage of what technology can do.

Here are my recommendations for businesses in the sign and display market:

Don’t ignore 5G. It will be disruptive for traditional print, just as all advances in broadband technology have been, and that includes some aspects of sign and display.

Understand the potential applications for technologies that can exploit 5G. That can include new kinds of interactive signage, AR and VR, and other applications not yet thought of.

5G will also improve your own internal connectivity, and will make cloud computing and cloud migration a much more compelling prospect. Work with your print MIS and other software providers to see how they are taking advantage of 5G.

Remember, 5G isn’t quite here yet, but starting to investigate it now will only make it easier to get the most out of it when it finally is ready for prime time.

Richard Romano is Managing Editor of WhatTheyThink | Printing News & Wide-Format & Signage.  He curates the Wide Format section on He has been writing about the graphic communications industry for more than 25 years. He is the author or coauthor of more than half a dozen books on printing technology and business. His most recent book is “Beyond Paper: An Interactive Guide to Wide-Format and Specialty Printing.

This article originally appeared on WhatTheyThink is the global printing industry’s leading source for unbiased market intelligence. Copyright © 2019 WhatTheyThink. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. For more like this, please consider becoming a member by visiting:

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