Why 5G won't be the great equalizer for SMBs and rural communities anytime soon

Despite promises of closing the digital divide, 5G may be slow to make it to underserved areas.

How businesses are setting the tone for 5G

5G, the fifth generation of wireless networking standards, has been marketed as one of the best chances the US has at bridging the digital divide--bringing better connectivity to people in underserved and rural areas. However, 5G won't be coming to these areas anytime soon, according to a new report from our sister site CNET.

US carriers including Verizon and AT&T are rolling out 5G aggressively across the US, but they're not targeting the cities and communities that could benefit the most from it. According to Pew Research cited in the report, 95% of Americans own a cell phone and 77% own a smartphone. Still, only 70% of rural areas have download speeds of at least 10 Mbps LTE, CNET reported. In urban areas, that number is 91%, CNET noted, based on FCC reporting using 2016 data.

As noted in CNET's report, technology, geography, and finances are the key reasons that rural areas are missing out on 5G. To make 5G work properly, you need multiple towers really close by for the short-range signal to travel between. Outside of the city center, that kind of infrastructure often isn't in place, CNET reported.

SEE: Quick glossary: 5G technology (Tech Pro Research)

Also, because current infrastructure is so poor, that will also limit the adoption of 5G, as the transition will require technologies like Gigabit LTE to provide a foundation for 5G and bridge the gap between the generations, according to Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon. Additionally, Verizon CTO Hans Vestberg said that 5G will exist alongside 4G for a long time as sort of a hybrid approach as the networks are built out. That approach is extremely difficult in areas that don't have 4G LTE to start with.

Because of this, Competitive Carriers Association CEO Steven Berry told CNET that "we're talking about a digital divide on steroids."

The major carriers are planning US rollouts of 5G in late 2018 and early 2019, and they're starting in major cities. Ted Rappaport, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering who conducted some of the early research into 5G, told CNET that 5G might not make it to rural areas until 2022 or 2023.

SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

Still, there are some other avenues being pursued. AT&T's Project AirGig, which uses power lines to send wireless internet through rural areas, could be on such solution to solving the problem. Elon Musk's SpaceX also has a plan to provide global internet via satellites. Regardless, it's clear that rural areas are not being served by traditional delivery methods from big-name carriers. And a solution will need to be thought up soon, or the rural US is at risk of falling even further behind.

The big takeaways for tech leaders:

  • Despite being marketed as a tool to close the digital divide, 5G won't come to rural areas for quite some time. -- CNET, 2018
  • Rural areas are missing out on 5G thanks to challenges in technology, geography, and finances. -- CNET, 2018

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Image: iStockphoto/steverts