Nearly two decades after Verizon debuted its iconic commercial, the telecom giant and its rivals AT&T and T-Mobile will play integral roles in bringing a new form of digital connectivity nationwide: 5G. The increased speeds, resolution, and connectivity that 5G provides are significant and may have game-changing potential for Americans' everyday life.
America’s growing digital divide
In October 2020, I wrote in Health Affairs about the growing digital divide for high-speed internet access between urban and rural America. At the height of the pandemic, tens of millions of rural patients couldn’t “see” their doctor via telemedicine as most urban Americans could. Rural patients were ten times more likely to lack broadband access—that is, download speeds reaching at least 25MB per second—than their urban peers. In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated that one-quarter of rural Americans did not have broadband access. That number was even higher for Native Americans living on tribal lands, with one-third lacking broadband access. By contrast, less than two percent of urban Americans lacked high-speed internet access.
The same FCC report series found massive disparities in internet speeds for urban and rural residents three years later. Nearly 98.8 percent of urbanites had access to high-speed internet, compared to only 82.7 percent of rural residents and 79.1 percent of Americans on tribal lands. What’s more, approximately four in five citizens who don’t have access to high-speed internet live in rural America. This digital divide is even more alarming since so many major facets of life—such as work, school, and healthcare—will rely more heavily on internet connectivity in the future.
Mobile 3G will no longer exist in 2023
In October, the FCC warned that the phasing out of 3G cellular services would be complete by the end of 2022. Mobile carriers are powering down 3G networks to make room for 5G's more advanced network services. In short, cell towers and other ports of the broadband infrastructure can only transmit across so many frequency spectrums without multiple signals interfering with each other.
• AT&T will end its 3G network by February 2022 • Verizon will end its 3G network by December 2022 • T-Mobile (and Sprint) will end its 3G networks by July 2022
A brief overview of how 5G works
Every generation of wireless technology builds upon the last. But the leap to 5G is especially significant because our lives are more connected to technology than ever. 5G will power technologies revolutionizing modern life in healthcare, public infrastructure, smart homes, and autonomous driving. Ultimately, experts believe 5G will be nearly ten times faster than 4G.
When tech commentators discuss the differences between 4G and 5G, they’re usually talking about connectivity. Population density, distance, and travel speed can affect how fast a mobile device communicates with a wireless network. 5G improves all connected devices' efficiency, connectivity, and mobility. Better efficiency means 5G requires less power usage than 4G, saving battery power on each device. Better connectivity means that population-dense areas (like cities with millions of people connecting simultaneously) can connect with less latency and speed issues from network overload. Better mobility means that mobile devices can stay connected longer at further distances. This is especially important for rural areas.
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that rural broadband could increase farm production by 18 percent, leading to a $47 billion to $65 billion annual surplus. While this may seem surprising, agriculture technology allows for precision-farming practices that could increase harvests, provide real-time data collection, and provide navigation systems to increase crop yields. Autonomous tractors, computerized irrigation, and cow sensors could digitize food production and potentially lead to more efficient farming. Even farming, one of the most rudimentary building blocks of human civilization, needs rural broadband internet.
Funding rural fiber-optic networks may be a financially viable policy solution
It is easy to argue that 5G is not financially viable in rural areas. Wireless 5G infrastructure like cellular towers still need to be connected to an underlying fiber-optic cable network, even if the 5G signal itself is transmitted from the tower. The innovation that makes 5G and its higher transmission speeds possible is 5G’s ability to fit more data into shorter wavelengths. Thus, 5G is more powerful but has a shorter range: approximately 800 feet from a transmission tower. For comparison, mid-20th century radios and televisions picked up signals halfway across the world thanks to longer wavelengths less dense with information.
Currently, the prospect of building thousands of new cell towers across the country connected to fiber-optic cable seems cost-prohibitive for private companies. If building more towers in rural areas were economically viable, companies would have made them already. But it's clear that long stretches of fiber-optic cable would greatly serve rural areas by providing a baseline of internet support.
Even in a divided political era, political will exists on both sides of the aisle to improve rural broadband access, as there are rural areas in red states and blue states alike. As policymakers consider the best ways to expand 5G and internet access to rural Americans, they should support the laying more fiber-optic cable before building thousands and thousands of new cell towers.