IS 5G the true answer to the rural broadband problem?
It will come as a shock to no one that a major concern for citizens in rural counties such as Culpeper and other rural areas of northern Virginia, is reliable broadband internet access. When I was part of Culpeper County’s broadband steering committee, I would hear stories from real estate agents and home builders that the first question asked by buyers, “Is high-speed internet available in the home?” It was the first question my wife and I asked before moving to Culpeper three ago.
We aren’t any closer to truly expanding broadband access. Internet service providers are not going to invest millions of dollars in low populated areas because the return on investment will take decades due to high installation costs. Local governments across the state have been a mix of completely “hands off”, to several counties, such as near the Eastern Shore, setting up their own Broadband Authority.
Finally, you have truly innovative companies such as local start-up, TraxyL, that have revolutionized installation of fiber optic lines by “painting” it on top of roadways. This drastically reduces the cost by not having to trench lines.
But it’s hard for me to envision a way rural broadband gets solved without major industry or a tech giant with deep pockets continuing the fight. The rollout of mobile 5G over the next several years could be the answer, depending how telecom providers handle it.
How is 5G better?
We typically think of upgrades to services as being smaller and faster, but that is not the complete case when it comes to 5G. 5G will have the following improvements: data speeds up to 20 Gbps, 1 millisecond latency, ability to handle up to 100x the number of connected devices per area, and the potential of a 90% reduction in network energy used.
In practical terms, this mean if you are in a very congested area or at a large event, your cell phone service will be more reliable with little network congestion. Real time interactivity or augmented reality apps will function much more smoothly. 5G will be able to integrate low power remote monitoring sensors. Innovative technology such as driverless cars, will be able to communicate more reliably and respond faster to the environment than a human.
What’s the downside?
The major downside to 5G rollout is the amount and placement of the necessary towers throughout the community. It is estimated that the smaller equipment will need to be placed an average of 500 feet apart. Some Culpeper Town Council Committee Members have already recommended approval for franchise agreements to install small cell equipment in the public right of way.
The Virginia State Assembly just approved bill 15.2-2316.3 that would allow wireless towers shorter than 50 feet to be installed without getting certain local approval, effectively removing local land-use authority oversight in these instances.
There is also a growing group of scientists (180 from 35 countries) concerned with long term exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) affects because of the significant amount of additional cell towers needed to make 5G work. A lobbying group for firefighters in California have successfully exempted 5G towers from placement on firehouses.
The biggest concern I have with 5G as a true alternative for home broadband is potential data caps. A reason given for data caps is current equipment can only handle so many connections reliably. 5G eliminates that hurdle. Verizon has come out and said that were will be no data caps for the yet to be released 5G home service. But will that last?
There is not expected to be any significant rollout of 5G technology until 2019. Each major cell carrier has different test cities around the country.
If companies such as TraxyL can greatly reduce the cost to install fiber to cell towers, 5G may be a worthy solution for rural broadband rollout. 5G has greater speed, reliability, and no data caps.
We live in a world that places tremendous need on reliable and fast internet. Our data needs are only going to grow, so let’s ensure everyone has equal access regardless of where you call home.
EDIT CORRECTION: “The full Town Council has not approved the new cell towers franchise agreement yet. Committee members of the Town Council recommended approval.“