5G sounds great, but we must ensure it won’t ruin internet equality
It’s hard to understand the exact impact of 5G connectivity, but we must pay attention to its risk to create an even bigger digital divide. Some experts predict that 5G will offer up to 600x times faster internet speeds compared to 4G. With the first 5G infrastructure and device rollouts starting to happen, now is the time to pay attention to the impact of 5G on internet equality.
Unfortunately, 5G will not be equally distributed, at least at first. The transition to widespread 5G availability will involve building new infrastructure to support these networks, as well as manufacturing new devices capable of processing higher speeds. One of the biggest concerns around this transition is that some people, areas of the world, or even specific types of applications will get access, while others will be left behind.
A quick look back through history shows that previous wireless transitions unlocked new inventions that shaped much of our society today. For example, 3G networks gave rise to the first iPhone and other smartphones to follow. With the 4G and 4G LTE transition came the creation of new apps and marketplaces built based on the fact that these speeds became available.
As Andreesen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans said, “If you’d shown Snapchat to a mobile network executive in the early 2000s, their hair would have gone white – there was just no way the early 3G network could have supported that kind of load.”
We don’t yet know what types of applications will be developed for 5G networks, but many experts speculate that faster speeds and lower latency will support the explosion of completely new internet-connected devices, including self-driving cars and other sensor-connected devices.
For businesses, experts predict that 5G-powered sensors and edge computing will result in a new era of automation, with improvements to areas such as industrial automation.
A potential to widen the current digital divide
Even though many people currently enjoy 4G connectivity, it’s easy to forget that large parts of the world do not have a similar luxury. Compared to the 77 percent of people in the US that have smartphones, 61 percent of people in Africa have feature phones. While feature phones still connect to the internet, they’re slower, have limited functionality, and give users a dramatically different experience with the web than smartphone users.
Slower connectivity can have a negative impact on the economy. A study from GSMA suggested that 3G mobile connectivity speeds contributed to improving the average GDP per capita by about 3.4 percent across the countries sampled. The same study suggested that each time mobile data usage doubles in a country, the country would experience a resulting GDP per capita growth rate increase of 0.5 percent. Considering that a 5G transition offers orders of magnitude faster speeds, many parts of the world may be missing out on potential for economic growth if they lack the devices or infrastructure to connect.
Even on a regional level, since 5G infrastructure is composed of shorter range “small cells,” certain cities or municipalities will likely gain access faster than others. The concern in the US is that rural America will get 5G connectivity much slower than cities. Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum worry that entire states may miss out on the 5G wave, because of the infrastructure challenges.
Missing out on potential critical applications
Much of the hype around 5G has been around the promise for new, potentially critical applications that don’t exist yet since we don’t have the speed to support them. Higher speeds and lower latency could mean that cities become “smarter,” using sensors to help control autonomous vehicle traffic or provide resource management and automation for electrical grids.
First responders like firefighters could potentially use augmente