May 13, 2019
April 28, 2019
5G Threatens To Widen Digital Divide Between Rural And Urban Cities
The race is on for 5G cellular networks as network providers battle to give customers instantaneous downloads of data on their devices.
The underpinning of the technology is grounded in a very basic need: broadband fiber rings that some small cities and rural communities lack. That, some experts contend, could further widen the digital divide between big cities and small towns.
“This is a challenging issue because there's a whole lot of hype about 5G,” said Deb Socia, the head of Next Century Cities, an advocacy group for small communities in the digital divide. “So yes, I think [the rollout of 5G] will significantly exacerbate the digital divide in this country."
Many suburban and rural municipalities are focused on investment in technology and innovation to try to stem the flow of people and businesses to major urban centers, where 68% of the world's population is expected to live by 2050.
Part of that effort is the hope — and stated goal in some cases — of getting 5G wireless in their communities. Therein lies the challenge: Will companies be willing to invest the capital it will take to install fiber and small-cell antennae in communities where the people are more spread out, the economies are smaller, the incomes are lower and, in some cases, the populations are shrinking?
“There are big companies that are standing to make a crapload of money. But they're going to spend a lot of money. Who the hell is going to pay for that?” said Karen Lightman, the executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, a group out of Carnegie Mellon University that experiments with smart city technologies.
“There are parts of the urban area where the fiber is not lit because the market is not there,” she said. “So I have big concerns about pockets in urban areas, like low-income areas, that are going to be forgotten.”
5G's Fiber Diet
The much-vaunted 5G network has to do with a slice of radio spectrum controlled by the Federal Communications Commission. The promise of 5G will allow devices designed to use the bandwidth to run exponentially faster.
This is an alluring factor when more than just smartphones are connected to wireless broadband. Already home appliances and infrastructure controls are infused with wireless receptors, and eventually vehicles will get the same, a boost toward the promise of driverless cars and trucks.
Cisco Systems projects that global consumers will use an average of 29 exabytes — 29 billion gigabytes — of mobile data a month this year. By 2022, Cisco projects data usage to surge to 77 exabytes per month.
A 2016 report by Ericsson predicts that there will be 150 million devices connected to 5G networks by 2021.
The nature of true 5G is a little more tricky than the 4G networks being used by many consumers today. Most devices connected to the internet do so on a very specific band of radio waves. The problem: As more devices become connected, the more crowded that spectrum becomes, threatening to slow speeds down or wreak havoc of dropped connections, according to industry trade organization IEEE.
To achieve the increased speeds, 5G encompasses millimeter-wave wireless spectrum bands that have yet to be used by consumer devices. Access to these higher frequency radio waves will allow many more devices to be connected to WiFi.
Because of the particular waves used, 5G has some disadvantages. First, it requires much more frequent cellular arrays to keep the signal traveling. The signal can also be easily disrupted, even by something as simple as a closed door or rain.
Big service providers will start their investments with 5G in big cities and urban centers with growing populations and the density to ensure a return, especially waiting to look at smaller suburbs or rural communities that don't have a solid fiber network already under their feet, NineStar Connect President Michael Burrow said. NineStar is an Indiana-based utility co-op.
“In a lot of rural areas, they don't have the necessary fiber to be able to even deploy 5G. In some areas, you have trouble with anything other than dial-up,” Burrow said. “At the end of the day, you can't have a vibrant 5G network without a vibrant and robust fiber network to complement it.”
This digital divide has already started with broadband. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 24 million Americans lack access to broadband connectivity, and 30% of people in rural areas don't have high-speed internet.
The cost of laying fiber can be prohibitive for some smaller communities where no major provider has already done it for them. Costs can range from $18K to $30K a mile in rural and suburban communities, Burrow said. In big cities, digging into the ground to lay fiber can cost easily twice that much.
Government Intervention Needed?
Most major telecommunication companies have announced plans to roll out 5G networks across the U.S. But, as expected, the focus is on major metropolitan areas.
Burrow likens today's divide to what America experienced in the early 20th century as utilities rolled out power lines. Big cities were the first to benefit because the utilities needed that return on investment for the capital outlay. Rural America got largely ignored.
“It was the same pressures on 1930s electric companies who said, 'We can't do that,'” he said.
It took massive government intervention, namely through the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which had utility co-ops form to fund the wiring of rural America to the electrical grid. That greatly narrowed the electrical divide.
Burrow said something similar may need to be done with broadband and eventually 5G to put the country on equal technological footing. Consumers already expect reliable, fast connections in their communities. One day, they may expect 5G.
“In my mind, you have to think about the consumer first and what the consumer expectations are,” he said. "There was a point in time when the rural consumers' expectation of lighting was kerosene lamp. If you now built a home in rural America, and you had to do that, you'd be saying, 'No way, I'm not going to move there.'"
In Georgia, broadband is widely available in Metro Atlanta and the northern portions of the state. In Central and South Georgia, the coverage is more spotty. That prompted state officials to launch a program in 2018 to kick-start the deployment of broadband service to rural areas of the state.
There also are moves afoot promoting 5G into smaller communities across the country. The FCC unveiled a plan this year to spend more than $20M to wire 4 million rural homes and businesses with gigabit-speed broadband fiber over the next decade. That fiber can one day become the backbone for a 5G rollout.
In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp was expected to sign bills that were aimed at speeding up connections in rural parts of the state by letting electrical membership corporations offer customers internet service and allow for telecom equipment to be set up on state-owned land.
Ironically, some government policies may be harming the spread of broadband to rural America, Socia said. The FCC caps the amount of money a municipality can charge for permitting and the use of public right of way by telecommunication companies.
Socia said allowing municipalities to charge more could allow them to provide incentives to telecoms to spread fiber to disadvantage parts of the country.
"We're at this edge of an evolution of a new technology opportunity, but we really need to step back and really look at issues like equity," she said. "I think it's going to get worse. But I think it's going to get worse because we're not allowing local leaders to be part of the picture."
Lightman said she sees a need for better coordination between local and national governments and utilities: Cut costs down by digging into the right of way once and laying down everything needed, instead of multiple costly intrusions.
"I don't see the free market building it in areas where there is no economic benefit right now, where they'd consider it charity," she said. "And really, that's the long way of looking at it because it's demeaning. It's sort of untapped potential."