Thursday, July 26, 2018

How 5G may widen the urban-rural digital divide

Major wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon say that new fifth-generation wireless networks will deliver gigabit speeds—up to 100 times faster than 4G LTE networks. But this new service could widen the already significant digital gap between rural and urban households.

“According to FCC data, 31 percent of rural residents don't have fixed broadband service, compared to 2 percent of city residents. Despite the hype around 5G, there's still little financial incentive for the major telecom firms to spend the billions of dollars necessary to serve rural communities, experts say,” Kim Hart reports for Axios.

The infrastructure for 5G is more expensive to install: the high-frequency airwaves capable of delivering such speeds can only travel a few hundred feet at best, so hundreds of thousands of cell towers could be needed to bring the service to far-flung areas.

“Gigabit-level speeds also require antennas to link back to an immense amount of fiber in the ground,” Hart reports. “Digging hundreds of miles of trenches for fiber-optic cables alongside long country roads already makes it tough to get basic broadband connections to remote areas. About 14 million rural Americans lack mobile LTE broadband at download speeds of 10 megabits per second, per FCC data.

However, Sherif Hanna, director of product marketing at Qualcomm, told Hart that real-time speed differences between rural and urban areas may not be so dramatic because rural cell towers are less crowded with digital traffic. And Steven Steele, CEO of Peoples Telecom, which has 3,000 wireless customers in eastern Texas, told Hart he is optimistic that 5G equipment will become cheaper as more it becomes more common, and therefore more affordable for smaller providers like his company, especially in small towns where homes are clustered near each other. 

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