Why we need a national 5G infrastructure plan

This article originally appeared on The Hill by Colby Humphrey.

Faster and more reliable Internet connectivity is well on its way to becoming reality, thanks to a new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) order, which lays the groundwork for a national 5G infrastructure plan. Significant investment will be needed for the technology to reach its full potential. As such, the order proposes that the FCC place caps on attachment and application fees of $270 and $100, respectively, potentially saving telecom companies $2 billion in burdensome fees from local authorities and freeing up capital for investment and jobs.

While the FCC maintains that these caps “will mean more broadband for more Americans, particularly in rural communities,” the plan has encountered some substantial criticism. Nonetheless, the order is an overall positive step in expanding Internet access to rural communities and should be welcomed by community leaders and advocates.

One point of contention among critics of the plan are the (very real) technical and financial limitations that render 5G expansion into rural America challenging. Current 5G systems require a network architecture of numerous small cells that, while possible in densely populated cities, is not feasible in more remote areas. Additionally, these wireless sites need to be connected to a fixed landline, meaning rural communities still face the hurdle of laying fiber throughout their communities to obtain the speeds touted by 5G’s proponents.

These technical and economic limitations have tamped down the enthusiasm and expectations for 5G rollout in non-urban areas, with critics warning the new technology will increase the digital divide. The federal government has spent billions of dollars – through various grant programs and partnerships – to get rural communities online. Yet, these areas are still twice as likely as their urban and suburban counterparts to never use the Internet. With such limitations in mind, what are the realistic expectations for rural Americans for 5G?

For one, 5G can aid in bringing Internet access to rural town centers and other clustered areas that can take advantage of the new technology. While not providing blanket coverage to every home, these investments could complement current broadband efforts and bring high-speed Internet to rural education centers, hospitals, and business centers.

Providing access to these areas alone would be a benefit to the country. The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) found that Internet expansion in rural areas brought economic growth, enhanced educational and vocational training offerings, and improved healthcare outcomes through telehealth practices. Considering the educational struggles and poor healthcare outcomes in rural America, expanding access to these communities is no trivial matter.

Additionally, while current 5G technology is best suited for urban environments, its rollout will improve speeds over existing systems, and the limited structural barriers in place could make installation easier in rural communities as the technology advances. What’s more, research indicates that the use of wireless services enhances profitability and productivity, enabling farmers to not only keep the country fed but remain competitive in the global market, therefore benefitting America’s agricultural sector.

While 5G may not replace home broadband, other telecom investments are bringing Internet access to rural areas with current technology. Companies such as Rise Broadband are using fixed wireless services that provide home services broadband speeds up to 50 miles away. Though not fiber speeds, the services meet current FCC broadband definitions and aid in bridging the “digital divide” in America.

Preparing the country for the 5G economy should remain a top priority for public and private sector leaders alike, but any hype must be tempered with the realities of implementation in urban areas and in the more isolated regions of the country. 5G may not solve the digital divide on its own, but creating a hybrid network that uses the new technology with current systems should play a role in bringing high-speed Internet to all Americans.

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