connected city (chombosan/Shutterstock.com)

Will 5G deepen the digital divide?

It’s no secret that America’s low-income and low-population communities trail urban areas when it comes to broadband access. Government and industry must ensure that gap doesn’t expand when 5G becomes operational, public- and private-sector officials said in a hearing Nov. 16.

Today,  most electronic devices connect to the internet, and some of those items, like connected vehicles, will be creating significant amounts of data that needs to be processed quickly. Tomorrow's internet requires a faster and more robust network the 4G wireless that connects us now.

5G technology promises to bring the low latency and high reliability required by the internet of things, telemedicine and other applications, according to Chris Pearson, the president of 5G Americas, whose members include AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and other telecom companies.

In testimony before the a House subcommittee on communications and technology Pearson cited societal benefits from 5G applications, such as remote surgery and robotic care for shut-ins or the elderly. "Hearing or visually impaired citizens will be more mobile through the use of self-driving cars and smart, safer homes,” he said.

But Shireen Santosham, the chief innovation officer for San Jose, Calif., said cities must have a say in where infrastructure is placed, otherwise industry will ignore areas -- largely lower income and lower population areas -- where it is less economically beneficial for them to build.

San Jose has been pushing a more digital future with a connected vehicle pilot and is excited about 5G, but Santosham doesn’t want the city to repeat its past mistakes.

“In San José, historically, we took a laissez-faire approach to our broadband market, which unfortunately resulted in several neighborhoods underserviced by broadband providers -- mostly in low income Latino communities,” she said. “It also resulted in low fiber-to-the-premises and little competition in the market leading to lower quality of service, consumer choice, and higher prices for our residents.”

Issues about equitable access soon led to conversations about funding.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) wanted to know what could be done to ensure that some communities aren't left behind as 5G rolls out.

Coleman Bazelon, a principal at The Brattle Group, said the government will likely have to subsidize the cost of providing the service in these areas. “When there is a public policy to make sure that’s provided to rural areas, the federal government is going to have to step in and ensure it,” he said.

Santosham suggested that market-based rates will allow cities to have more of a voice when it comes to the deployment of infrastructure.

“Market-based rates allow us to incentivize buildout, especially when we’re allowed to build out entire communities,” she said. “So we’re able to say, ‘Hey, here’s all the space in the city we’d like to build out, and we’ll give you a discount on some of this infrastructure if you’re willing to go to the communities to need to be served.’”

In related news, on Nov. 16,  the Federal Communications Commission announced it would be opening up spectrum above 24 GHz, which includes “additional 1,700 megahertz of millimeter wave spectrum for terrestrial 5G wireless use.”

“This high-frequency spectrum will support innovative new uses enabled by fiber-fast wireless speeds and extremely low latency,” the agency announcement said.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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