The much anticipated rollout of high-speed 5G networks in the United States began in earnest in 2019 when many of the nation’s wireless carriers began offering coverage in large cities. Urban areas like Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta were the first to sample what the technology could provide. As to be expected when debuting a new, highly complex technology, results were mixed. Service was spotty and speeds did not reach the levels promised by the seemingly endless hype that led up to the launch. These issues were promised to be, and almost certainly will be, ironed out in the coming months as the adoption of the technology increases.
Connectivity in rural America already lags behind
5G service is expected to grow quickly in the US over the coming years, as providers construct the physical towers needed to relay and transmit the signals, all for an estimated cost of USD380 billion by 2025. However, these new networks are almost entirely going up in urban, densely populated areas; a fact that will only contribute to the existing wireless connectivity chasm that currently exists between urban and rural areas. One in five rural households does not have access to broadband internet and 70% have download speeds of less than 10MB per second. In some areas, the speed drops into the low single-digits, leaving users incapable of checking their Twitter feeds easily, let alone streaming videos. In urban areas, the numbers of those without broadband access is 4% and more than 90% of people have access to speeds of at least 10mbps. The new 5G networks appear to be on the cusp of exacerbating the problem in a big way. 5G connections promise speed of up to 1.4GB per second. Compared to the current 4G network’s speed of around 70MB per second, the new networks are approximately 20 times faster. Good news for city dwellers, but many rural areas are still waiting for 4G to come their way.
Forces align against rural 5G
5G does not appear to be coming to the countryside anytime soon, part of the problem is the technology itself. 5G works on a millimeter-wave band and does not travel well. The signal is only strong for short distances and is vulnerable to obstructions. The solution to this problem is to have many antenna towers close together; a solution much more suited to dense urban areas than to sprawling countryside. It is also expensive. The cost of urban development will likely be passed on to consumers in the form of a surcharge for using the new networks. In wide-open, sparsely populated areas it becomes a much more difficult proposition, compounded by the fact that access to the network is dependent on having a 5G-enabled device, the selection of which is currently positioned at the higher price points of the market. In rural areas where income and wealth are lower than in urban locales, upgrading phones out of anything other than necessity is much less common. All these factors combine to all but ensure the benefits of 5G will be localized to the nation’s cities for at least the foreseeable future.
However, all is not lost
This is not to say that there is no hope on the horizon for rural areas. As a stop-gap measure, providers are touting their sub 6GHz networks. These connections offer speeds of 400 to 500MB per second and are much more stable than millimeter wave 5G. This network can run on the existing spectrum owned by the providers and travel over longer distances. While they offer a speed roughly one-third that of 5G, they are still a marked upgrade over the existing services available.
The widespread adoption of 5G technology in the US is inevitable. With it will come numerous economic and social benefits, many of which have yet to be conceived. However, a large portion of the country is at risk of being shut out of these benefits due to the cost and technological concerns. If this comes to pass it will serve only to widen the already existing technological divide between urban and rural residents.