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5G Won’t Bridge the Rural Digital Divide, Nor Will Telecom Mergers

Jenna Burrell, associate professor, School of Information | November 15, 2019

Jaime is a generational cattle rancher in central Oregon. He subscribes to two Internet services, both of which have stringent data caps that he routinely exceeds. One is satellite-based, meaning it inefficiently boomerangs his data to outer space and back. The other is his cell phone service with Verizon, which he uses to connect a stationary laptop. He runs through the monthly data caps on both services in about three weeks. The setup costs him around $250 per month.

Countryside with Wifi bars

UC Berkeley photo illustration by Yasmin Anwar.

He’s a pretty typical example of a rural Internet user on the fringes of connectivity.

The rollout of 5G, the next generation of mobile Internet, promises speeds of up to 1 gigabyte per second. Some like Jaime, who are already within range of cell phone service might benefit from 5G if it liberates them from strict data usage limits. Yet rural residents who are beyond range of any cell phone service are not hard to find. And 5G provides a smaller radius of effective service from a cell tower than 4G, a step in the wrong direction.

It’s inaccurate for the FCC to argue, as it did on social media last week, that the “T-Mobile and Sprint merger “will help close the #DigitallDivide & promote wide deployment of #5G services.” The biggest technical challenges in rural areas, particularly in the West, are not more resourced telecom companies, but vast distances and low population density (that are not of financial interest for big telecom companies to serve). Mobile phone networks are unlikely to build towers to serve just a few subscribers. 5G doesn’t change that.

I’ve spent several years talking to people in rural communities about their poor Internet connections. In that time, a few things have become clear. Rural areas are falling further and further behind. They are pinched between ballooning network demands and stagnating service. Large web pages, high-res photos, streaming entertainment, and cloud backup services are no match for their data-capped satellite service or their outdated T1 lines. I’ve even encountered some folks with dial-up connections. The Internet is a moving target set to the rising standards and expectations of the metropolitan core.

Not only is rural infrastructure poor and capacity inadequate, what is available is often not reliable. I surveyed 178 residents in an area along the northern California coast that has long struggled with limited Internet service. Residents on average rated reliability as their number one priority. Many had experienced lengthy or frequent outages disrupting their businesses and jeopardizing their incomes or even cutting them off from emergency services. Like Jaime, some subscribed to multiple Internet services to manage, but at great cost.

Internet connectivity is a particular challenge for the nation’s farmers who are often relegated to satellite. The general verdict on this type of service ranges from, “it’s adequate” to “it’s abysmally bad.” Network gaming, for example, isn’t feasible on satellite (in a game of Call of Duty, the latency will kill you). More importantly, you’ll also have trouble streaming a livestock auction and registering an online bid, an increasingly common agricultural application of the Internet.

As a sociologist who specializes in the history of technology, I see the singular hope some place on 5G as part of a well-established and peculiarly American pattern of thought: the faith placed in silver bullet technical solutions to entrenched social problems. I am reminded of the credulous claim once made that the telegraph would bring about world peace or that the motion picture would supplant the need to read from textbooks in schools.

There’s another peculiarly American pattern I’ve observed, but a more encouraging one. Rural residents have long found ways to build their own infrastructure – from small power plants run by electrical cooperatives to the barbed wire telephone lines built by impatient farmers. Today, the rural gap is being filled by do-it-yourself Internet service providers offering fixed wireless service. The rural trade organization WISPA claims that 4 million subscribers currently get Internet through fixed wireless.

Policy makers at local, state and federal levels need to take a diversified approach to rural connectivity, tackling the varying constraints in rural regions, whether technical, topographical, or socio-economic. What would undoubtedly also help are long-term investments in foundational infrastructure and, specifically, a bold national plan for fiber. One model to consider is the federal hydropower program which offers wholesale electricity at-cost to benefit the public. Along these lines, states that ban municipal or government funded fiber should reverse those bills immediately.

Policy-makers should also be hesitant about throwing their weight behind solutions that recentralize power over vast portions of our national infrastructure. Alternative proposals like SpaceX’s low-earth orbiting satellites could offer solutions better matched to rural connectivity than 5G. However this merely replaces one silver bullet with another. Centralized private sector control, particularly in the hands of a single monolithic company, creates problems for fair pricing, transparency, and cybersecurity.

5G will likely gratify city dwellers by making streaming media and file downloads faster. Meanwhile remote areas still lack basic service. As another cattle rancher I interviewed in Oregon fumed, “You can put a man on the moon, but you can’t drive down the road and have cell service.”

Jenna Burrell is an Associate Professor at the School of Information, UC-Berkeley. She is currently working on a book titled Bypassed: Rural Revival and Resistance in the Digital Economy.

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