Broadband is not just delivered one way
Broadband is often conflated with several technologies. There are a variety of ways in which broadband, or high-speed internet, can be delivered, which complicates policy efforts that do not lend themselves to a one-size-fits-all approach.The pandemic has thrust broadband access and the digital divide to the forefront of American life. Millions of students have been attending school virtually, with many struggling to obtain or maintain sufficient internet speed. Restrictions on in-person shopping and community lockdowns moved many services online, putting Americans who cannot afford or access broadband internet at a disadvantage. Those American workers fortunate enough to work from home have faced challenges with access to limited internet bandwidth. This new normal has elevated access to high-speed internet/broadband from a luxury to a necessity. These conditions have made the need for addressing the pre-existing “digital divide” a hot topic amongst policymakers.
Depending on the source, there could be anywhere from 19 (the FCC’s estimate) to 162 million people (Microsoft’s estimate) without access to high-speed internet at home. Congress took steps in passing Covid relief packages to address the gap in broadband access by providing $7.1 billion in funding for broadband connectivity and infrastructure for schools and libraries. Additionally, the American Rescue Plan appropriates $220 billion to states. These funds are for broadband infrastructure investment and support to individual households to bring down the cost of broadband. Many believe the budget is insufficient to fully address the digital divide, and Congress is expected to provide additional assistance through future infrastructure bills.
The FCC has made closing the digital divide a priority with considerable excitement about the deployment of 5G. The fifth-generation standard is breaking new ground in wireless technology and improving internet access, but how and if it can be used to close the digital divide remains unclear.
As they wrestle with issues related to broadband access, policymakers must have a basic understanding of what broadband is, what 5G means (and how it differs from 2G, 3G, and so on), and how it all fits into the landscape of closing the digital divide.
What Does “G” Mean?
G refers to generation. Several years ago, your cell phone started displaying 4G instead of 3G. We are entering the fifth generation (5G) of specifications that define mobile technology standards. Standards, set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), include minimum and maximum speeds, hardware and software, IT protocols, frequencies, and spectrum. . The lifespan of these generations has typically been about a decade.
The first generation was built on analog technology, which enabled cellular voice calls to be made. Then, 2G leaped to using digital infrastructure, which enabled the transmission of multimedia files, SMS texts, and digitally encrypted phone calls over the network.
3G was a Big Leap Forward
When 3G networks first came online in 2002, it was like trading a Ford Taurus in for a Formula One car. The average speed of 3G connections is 3 megabits per second (Mbps), which was 30 times faster than 2G average speed of 100 kilobits per second (or 0.1 Mbps). Some 3G connections could achieve speeds of 7Mbps. 3G networks kept features introduced in 2G such as web browsing, streaming, SMS, and roaming, while also offering improved connectivity, speed, and call quality. Although Motorola and Nokia released 3G capable phones as early as 2002, it was not widely adopted as the standard until 2008. The most notable moment was the release of Apple’s second iPhone, the iPhone 3G.
Technologies enabled: Mobile maps and directions, web surfing, 24/7 internet connection, video conferencing, multimedia streaming, simultaneously accessing voice and data.
We are currently at the tail end of the 4th generation of mobile data technology. The first 4G networks began to come online in 2011, but carriers did not achieve full 4G coverage until 2014. 4G networks are based on all-Internet Protocol (IP) network to achieve up to 1GB download speeds. This network has essentially the same core protocols as the internet.
The ITU standardized the capacity of 4G to allow for “highly mobile data,” which is the internet connection of 100Mbps achieved while a device moves at high-speed like on a train or in a car. Stationary or more local connections can achieve peak speeds of 1GB. However, these rates are seldom, if ever, achieved by devices on 4G networks. The average download speed on 4G currently sits around 14Mbps (almost five times faster than 3G), and the average upload is close to 8Mbps.
It would take roughly 40 minutes on 4G to download two full seasons of The Office, which is 5GB in size. It would take over 2 hours to download on 3G. 5G reduces the time it would take to 35 seconds. 4G boasts peak speeds clocking in at 150Mbps upload and 50Mbps download speeds. These are vast improvements over 3G, yet the full promise of 4G has never been realized.
Technologies enabled: HD streaming, video game streaming, mobile browsing overtook desktop browsing.
Major mobile phone carriers are deploying 5G wireless networks, with expected 6.5 billion users by 2026. 5G has the potential to be faster than current home broadband, transforming the digital services and internet speeds offered to consumers.
5G has the capability of Low-band (<1GHz), Mid-band (<6GHz), and High-band spectrum (>6GHz). Higher frequencies can move more significant amounts of data faster. In theory, the peak speeds of 5G will be 20 times faster than the theoretical peak speed of 4G (20Gbps on 5G vs. 1Gbps on 4G). Advancements in technology allow 5G antennae to use less power because of their ability to send highly directional signals instead of multidirectional signals like 4G. Thus, it wastes less power, blasting signals only in the direction of its intended target.
Another advantage of 5G is that it can support up to 1,000 more devices per meter than 4G. With more and more internet-connected objects such as smart ovens, robot vacuums, and Alexa coming online, this is a welcome upgrade. 5G will also lower the latency of wireless transmissions to less than ten milliseconds. This upgrade in reliability, coupled with the potential to provide speeds 20 times faster than current broadband offerings, is why 5G is being touted as a groundbreaking technology with the potential to replace most current home broadband.
What are the challenges of 5G?
While its use of higher frequencies allows it to push more significant amounts of data faster, there is a trade-off between shorter distance connections and higher absorption rates of the signals. This means that to achieve blanket 5G coverage, carriers will need to deploy many more antennas than previous generations. It also means that they will need to deploy more of these antennas closer to end devices. The frequencies at the higher end of the spectrum are also affected more by environmental factors such as rain, wind, and physical obstructions (like buildings, trees, and mountains) that block the line of sight. Higher frequency signals have less ability to penetrate these obstructions, and more of the signal is lost. 4G operates at a lower end of the spectrum, thus allowing for greater signal penetration and coverage.
Addressing the lack of high-speed broadband access in rural areas will most likely require a combination of technologies, including cellular such as 4G LTE and 5G, fiber, and satellite internet service providers. The satellite broadband service Starlink is an encouraging option to tackle the rural access issues. Starlink leverages a network of over 1,300 satellites in low Earth orbit to deliver internet service to rural areas. Starlink boasts of download speeds between 50Mbps to 150Mbps. So far, beta testing in the rural UK and the U.S. is seeing an average of 70Mbps. This is almost triple the FCC’s standard for broadband of 25Mbps download speeds.
Access to the internet has become an essential part of how Americans work, learn, and interact. With advances in 5G promising to enable the next wave of connected devices like autonomous cars and smart glasses, the cost to Americans left on the wrong side of the digital divide will be steep.
There are challenges to achieving widespread coverage of 5G. It will require significant investments in infrastructure, with diminishing returns in rural and lesser populated areas. Policymakers will need to consider other high-speed internet solutions along with 5G to bring everyone up to speed. As policymakers promote solutions to the digital divide, they should consider the distinctions in speed and services provided by different generations of telecommunications technologies and set a goal to ensure that all Americans have access to high-speed internet.