5G's in the news: we're locked in a fierce competition with China for dominance; US carriers aren't as far behind us we think; the government needs to create a national network. No doubt 5G is a big deal for national competitiveness and for the economy. 4G/LTE launched the AWS and App Store business model, giving us Instagram, Netflix, podcasts, Yelp, Uber, and so on. 5g will launch the internet of things, artificial intelligence, autonomy, and machine learning.
One of the lesser told stories is how 5G will exacerbate an already large bandwidth divide between urban and rural areas. And, to go one step further, it will open a gap between wealthy urban areas and the less wealthy.
The Problem—and the Solution
The issue is driven by how 5G networks are built. Everyone has seen those huge cell towers that provide much of the traditional cellular coverage. They are tall and connect to your phone through airwaves (AKA spectrum) that travel for relatively long distances, penetrating most walls. As we connect more devices to the internet, we crowd that spectrum more and more, meaning we have higher bandwidth needs, too.
One way to solve this problem is to use spectrum--and more spectrum.
5G, and beyond, brings in spectrum called millimeter wave, the same band used by security at the airport. This spectrum is above 30 GHz, as compared to the 2.5-5 GHz bands your home wifi likely uses. Those spectrum bands don’t travel very far and don’t penetrate buildings, but they can be very effective over short ranges. The difficulty becomes, though, building out the devices you need to effectively use these higher spectrum bands.
A Challenge Ahead
It is a huge cost to densely pack urban areas with new equipment. And the business case for private carriers doing this in rural areas is unconvincing, leaving rural areas with far less bandwidth.
As a result, we're not going to have just a difference in scale. We’re going to have a difference in the kind [of bandwidth]. It won’t be that your Netflix takes longer to download--it’s that your Netflix just won’t work. The applications that you’ll be able to use in dense urban areas are going to be a different type than in rural areas.
Many future business models will be predicated on having access to mobile applications, which will likely be inaccessible in rural areas. Granted, we have no idea what those applications and technologies will be, just as we didn’t know about Uber, Yelp, or Instagram. But the unfortunate consequence will be that rural areas will lag behind economically, most likely losing even more population as their economies become less competitive.
It's absolutely essential that the government bridges as much of this gap as possible, so rural areas can remain economically competitive. We’re well on our way, with the FCC’s newly announced Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, but there’s admittedly a lot of infrastructure work to be done.
Just as the government supported the electrification of rural areas in the 1930s, we now need to rural areas get to the highest broadband speeds we possibly can. This is not a matter of getting Netflix to download a little faster. It’s about the future of rural america’s businesses, and the economy that supports these regions.