by Aparna Nathan

We live in a wireless world. From the moment you wake up to an alarm on your Google Home to flipping through an eBook before falling asleep, mobile networks free us from the tethers of landlines and cables. And the technology has evolved rapidly. Each decade, a new generation of cellular technology emerges and offers faster speeds, broader coverage, and better security, the ingredients for modern technological advancements.

But this rapid march into our cyberfuture isn’t without obstacles, such as ethical questions about access and security. Cellular networks exist in the ambiguous space shared by government and industry, feeling the combined pressures of regulation, innovation, and commercialization. With the impending expansion of 5G technologies in 2020, it is more important than ever to lay a clear roadmap for a safe and equitable mobile future.

The mobile evolution

 The experience of making a phone call or uploading a photo is so seamless that we never have to think about how the sounds and pixels are shooting through cyberspace. Cellular networks send information between land-tethered cell towers and mobile devices via radio waves – invisible beams of energy that fill the air around us and hop in short bursts between cell towers. 

But how do waves crisscrossing through the air avoid getting in each other’s way? There’s some order inherent to the system. Each wave’s energy is measured by its frequency or wavelength. Frequency refers to how many waves pass a given point in a period of time; so, the longer the wavelength, the lower the frequency. This can be controlled by tuning the antenna on the transmitter or receiver (think, changing the radio station in a car). Frequencies are like lanes on a highway: Information transmitted at different frequencies stay separate. Some are reserved for specific purposes, like government usage, while others carry signals for everything from astronomy to garage-door openers. This makes these frequencies very crowded and slow, so for faster communication, 5G networks take advantage of the empty expanses of the highest frequencies.

The earliest cellular network in 1979 enabled what was, at the time, unimaginable: making calls between iconic two-pound phones (Figure 1). Nearly every decade since then, faster networks have enabled new technologies like text messages and smartphones. But the speeds of ’90s networks would never satisfy us now. For context, a modern-day iPhone photo takes up over 16000 kilobits, a unit to measure the size of data. 2G networks transferred data at the glacial pace of 30-35 kilobits per second, so it would take around 10 minutes to send a photo. Two generations later, 4G networks boosted speeds to 60 megabits per second.

Figure 1: Cellular network history. As cellular networks become faster, they enable new forms of communication, like calls, texts, and the internet.

But there is still room for improvement, and that’s where 5G’s redesigned infrastructure helps. For example, 4G wireless towers are non-directional and wastefully transmit signals in all directions. 5G towers focus their transmission in a specified direction and use higher frequency, shorter wavelengths to support more devices — 1,000 times more devices than 4G. With speeds of over a gigabit per second, websites load in just milliseconds. 

But 5G signals don’t travel as far as 4G signals because their higher frequency waves fizzle out, and the shorter wavelengths can’t pierce through solid barriers (say, walls) as effectively as the longer wavelengths of 4G networks. Whereas 4G signals are transmitted by sparsely spaced towers at cell stations, 5G requires more antennae placed at regular intervals, nearly one on every block (500 feet apart, on average). These 5G “small cell” antennae range from the size of a pizza box to a cooler, sparking concern about the aesthetics of adding them to buildings and telephone poles.

5G: a force for equity?

One of the largest divides in America is the digital chasm between those with access to high-speed internet and those without. According to a 2018 report from the Federal Communications Commission, only 92% of Americans have wires bringing internet to their homes. Five million people rely solely on mobile connections to access the internet at home, especially in low-income or rural areas, where there are few economic incentives for internet service providers (ISPs) to lay infrastructure. But when mobile networks are too slow or unreliable, these people are cut off from the world-wide web.

5G networks’ higher speeds and capacities have been proposed as an alternative to wired connections to bring reliable internet to these communities, but local government officials are doubtful. 5G networks’ short range signals are a liability in rural areas. If neighboring homes are miles apart, that requires tens of antennae just to bring 5G to one household (Figure 2). Estimates suggest that establishing 5G networks in rural communities will cost roughly $40,000 per customer, compared to a mere $800 per customer in denser towns. And this seems to be shaping providers’ willingness to invest: an initial plan for 5G in Montgomery County, Maryland dedicated only 5% of antennae to sparsely populated areas.

Previous government programs like Connect America have subsidized the cost of bringing fixed broadband to rural areas, and in December 2019, the federal government announced $9 billion dollar-fund to support 5G implementation in rural areas. But lawmakers and activists say that this isn’t the right direction, pointing to the time that has already been invested into testing, implementing, and troubleshooting 4G networks that have yet to fully come online. If the goal is to bring reliable cellular networks to remote areas, getting 5G technologies going will extend the delay, but improving coverage under existing 4G technologies would offer a quicker solution to rural connectivity. Another idea is to use 5G to patch up gaps in wired networks. In rural areas, where individual homes are sparsely scattered around a wired network backbone, 5G antennae can carry the signal for the final stretch to each house (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Connecting rural America. Extending a wired connection or erecting more antennae are just two potential ways to help loop rural homes into existing networks.

5G may be a more feasible solution in urban areas underserved by current networks. In San Jose—motivated by a recent study showing that more than 50% of low-income residents don’t have home internet—the city government solicited investment in 5G infrastructure from both internet providers and other tech companies, and, in return, offered cooperation to set up antennae and use the network as a test site for further innovation. Similarly, in Sacramento, a public-private partnership with Verizon is fueling a city of the future, with 5G-enabled Wi-Fi in parks and a connected system of traffic cameras and sensors.

The bumpy road to a 5G future

According to a study conducted by Accenture for the wireless communications trade association CTIA, between 2018 and 2026 there will be more than 750,000 more 5G antennae mounted nationwide. This is a daunting infrastructural undertaking, and the burden of approving antennae design and positioning falls to city officials. In response to industry lobbying, the Federal Communications Commission passed an ordinance capping antenna application fees levied by local governments. This ruling is estimated to save internet providers $2 billion, but has been broadly unpopular among city governments, who rely on these fees and existing agreements with internet providers to fund more robust modernization programs, triggering crossfire of lawsuits between city governments, the FCC, and ISPs.

Beyond equitable access, 5G also introduces new privacy and environmental concerns. For example, while each 5G antenna will require less energy than its 4G counterpart, the number of 5G antennae will far outpace the size of the 4G network. But as policymakers scramble to get ahead of issues like this, the technology is advancing — and fast. Estimates suggest that by 2020, there will be 20 billion devices connected to cellular networks, like “smart” TVs, watches, and cars, which will need to transmit data in real time. When you’re in a self-driving car, you don’t want it to lose its connection to the network and be unable to navigate or respond to traffic signals—nearly instantaneous data transfer of 5G networks is essential.

5G promises to bring self-driving cars, smart houses, antennae on every corner, and a whole new set of challenges for local and federal governments to hash out with providers. It is essential that these groups communicate and come to agreements that benefit everyone — after all, San Jose has shown it is possible to come to an agreement that both serves the people and returns a profit. Besides, 6G is right around the corner.

Aparna Nathan is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics program at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter at @aparnanathan.

For more information:

  • 5G is making big promises, but learn more about what service providers say the immediate roll-out will look like.
  • New technology brings new cybersecurity issues — learn more about what 5G will mean for internet privacy.
  • This report from Brookings provides recommendations for how 5G can improve equity for marginalized communities, especially people of color.

20 thoughts on “The Dawn of the 5G Era: Is new technology the solution to internet inequity?

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