Lawmakers and consumer advocates are pressing telecommunication companies to ensure that rural areas are not left behind in the race to adopt fifth-generation, or 5G, mobile broadband technology.
Industry says the new wireless standard will dramatically boost internet speeds and bandwidth.
But rural advocates from both parties, such as Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), note that large areas of America still lack 4G or even 3G coverage.
“I am very concerned that [5G] will never come to Montana. We have advocated to put 5G into our biggest town, Billings, yet we have gotten no response whatsoever,” Tester said during an August oversight hearing of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) before the Senate Commerce Committee.
“As we work to get 5G — and I think all of us want to have 5G through the country — what happens to the places who have no G?” he asked the FCC commissioners testifying.
During a September hearing on 5G, Capito similarly pressed top telecom executives. She said that despite improvements in internet technology, those advances rarely made it to underserved rural areas.
“I do think this is a repeating theme and we’re still not getting there so I’m a bit frustrated by that,” Capito said.
While most urban areas have access to high-speed internet and 4G mobile broadband, outside of the highways that cut across the country, huge swaths of America often lack any consistent broadband connection.
Industry insists 5G broadband will help address the “digital divide” between highly connected urban areas and rural areas that have few and in some cases no options for affordable high-speed broadband. It sees wireless broadband as a means to provide connectivity to hard-to-reach rural areas.
“I do think that goals are intertwined of connecting all of America and winning the race to 5G,” said Meredith Attwell Baker, president of CTIA, a lobbying group that represents major telecom companies, at the Senate Commerce Committee. She said making more 5G spectrum available would be a big step to achieve that goal.
Lawmakers and telecom experts are largely supportive of the push to adopt 5G.
But many experts say the concerns raised about rural areas being left out are well-founded. They are skeptical that the new wireless standard will roll out easily to all corners of the country.
“I firmly believe that nothing is going to change,” said Dennis Thankachan, CEO and co-founder of Nexus Connectivity, a company that specializes in deploying broadband to rural areas.
He says 5G broadband requires very high frequencies, which don’t travel well over the long distances that are common in rural areas.
“It’s a hard physics problem that people haven’t figured out well yet,” Thankachan said.
“People that live in rural areas and that represent rural areas should be aware that the solution that wireless industry is pushing won’t help them,” agreed Gigi Sohn, a fellow at Georgetown Law who served as special counsel for former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
At least initially, much of 5G’s deployment will rely on “small cells” — a device that beams out broadband at relatively short ranges. Small cells are a departure from 4G and 3G mobile broadband, which relied on huge cell towers that would send out wireless signals much further.
In densely populated cities, this isn’t a problem. Small cells can be placed every several blocks as needed, letting anyone near them access 5G networks. In areas where small cells haven’t been installed yet, phones will simply connect to the area’s 4G network.
This gets much trickier in rural areas, where in many cases there is not even a 4G network to fall back on.
“In a rural area it means you’re putting up a tower every 300 to 400 feet, which isn’t realistic,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of rural broadband providers.
“With some of these long rural driveways, it’s going to take two towers to just get a wireless connection up to the house,” she said.
One industry executive, Brad Gillen, executive vice president of CTIA, publicly acknowledged during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in January that 5G might not improve service in rural areas.
“We think they’re two separate and important problems,” he said, referring to the race to adopt 5G and the issue of rural connectivity. “But no, [5G] won’t solve the problem for underserved areas.”
Even skeptics acknowledge 5G will bring many improvements overall. Experts who spoke to The Hill all clarified that they support the technology in terms of what it could do for industry, even if it doesn’t offer immediate help for rural areas. But they hope industry and policymakers keep pressing for ways to address the issue.
Doug Brake, a policy analyst at The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a technology-focused think tank, said that while 5G isn’t a good option for rural America at the moment, that could change in the future.
Brake said fixed point-to-point wireless links could be a rural alternative to urban small cells that would transmit 5G across longer distances. But he cautioned that is a ways off.
Regardless of how it happens, lawmakers and experts agree that making sure rural America has better access to high-speed internet is essential in moving the country forward.
Many are just skeptical 5G will be the way to do it.
“This is actually what’s hurting America. This is how you end up with rural communities that are not connected, that are kept off the internet and out of the conversation,” Thankachan said.
“That’s not what we need right now.”
While whitespace technology does not provide the high bandwidth and low latency of 5G it does provide rural families and business something they do not have now, access to the internet at 10-20Mbits. It will support email, browsing, online shopping and the ability to download movies. Whitespace Internet and fixed wireless providers can meet more rural broadband needs than 5G which will never come to most rural neighborhoods.