Will 5G fix America’s rural broadband woes? We asked the experts

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Rural Americans are by far the most under-served population when it comes to broadband access. A 2018 FCC report found that 98 percent of Americans in urban areas had access to a broadband connection, yet only 69 percent of rural Americans do. And the reason why is just what you’d expect: profitability.

Fixed broadband providers see rural America as a losing proposition, a drag on the bottom line. The infrastructure investment required is substantial, so today’s modern broadband often ends outside of the far suburbs, leaving rural Americans with their smartphones as their only alternative.

That’s working, for now. Every urban-dwelling American has access to a basic LTE connection, defined by the FCC as a minimum of 5Mbps down and 1Mbps up. Most rural Americans do too, with at least 95 percent of all Americans in rural and tribal lands having the same. But let’s face it: for most modern applications, that is nowhere near fast enough to be useful, and a large section of rural America barely meets this low bar. This is where 5G comes in.

T-Mobile and Sprint want to lead the way

Much of the case for the T-Mobile and Sprint merger has revolved around an accelerated path to 5G, including rural communities. Officials at either company have repeatedly pointed to the need for better rural connectivity as a reason why the merger should be approved.

Testing Sprint's 5G Network on a LG V50 ThinQ 5G
The current speeds on Sprint’s 5G network are impressive, but we frequently saw its 4G LTE keeping up, or never terribly behind. Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

“In order for 5G to be truly transformational, these breakthroughs need to benefit more than just a few people in a few areas,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere argued recently.

The way T-Mobile and Sprint want to handle 5G is different from Verizon and AT&T. Their larger competitors are looking towards a technology known as millimeter wave (mmWave), which uses ultra-high frequencies to deliver connectivity to devices. But mmWave’s biggest issue is range. As you move higher in frequency, the power requirements to broadcast long distances increases exponentially and its ability to pass through objects (buildings, cars, etc.) decreases.

“5G networks aren’t cheap but compared to building fiber-optic networks … they are far more economical.”

While a combined T-Mobile/Sprint would still make some use of mmWave frequencies, a majority of the two companies’ 5G deployment will happen in the mid and lower bands. This wouldn’t be anywhere as fast as urban 5G, but it would be a drastic improvement over what’s currently available.

“Some people mistakenly equate 5G with millimeter wave frequencies, which by their nature will likely be focused on urban centers rather than rural markets, thus thinking that 5G won’t serve those rural markets,” Cradlepoint 5G Strategy Chief, Lindsay Notwell, told Digital Trends.

Is rural 5G feasible?

With low-band frequency use, the idea of 5G outside of big cities becomes possible. While a 5Mbps connection is certainly too slow to be useful for many modern applications, even bringing it to just 25Mbps would be enough to make it an acceptable alternative to wired broadband connections. Every expert we talked to agreed that rural 5G was possible, but not necessarily on the path there.

Samsung's 5G node used to broadcast 5G signals.
Samsung’s 5G node used to broadcast 5G signals. Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

“5G networks aren’t cheap but compared to building fiber-optic networks to cover rural populations and industry, they are demonstrably more economical,” said Gordon Smith, CEO of telecom solution provider Sagent. “Fiber backbones still have an important role, but are cost prohibitive without density.”

As a result, some kind of wireless technology is likely the only way that faster broadband ever makes it to the most sparsely populated areas.

Smith said the alternative is a government-run network, but he argued that would run counter to most Americans’ preference for free market control. While we all pay into a fund (Universal Service Fund) that helps subsidize build-outs of telecommunications services in remote areas, the money collected is nowhere near enough to build out an entire network, and a government-run 5G network could cost tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars.

The industry is not waiting for 5G to transform rural broadband.

Others cautioned that we shouldn’t expect 5G to be a quick fix to the rural broadband problem, and should instead look to older technologies, like 4G LTE. “It’s unlikely that initial phases of a 5G rollout will make a dramatic impact on rural broadband,” IHS Markit’s Kevin Hasley, executive director of Performance Benchmarking, told Digital Trends. “As we move forward and 5G becomes the norm, operators will have the ability to re-farm existing spectrum for new uses.”

That might be the best bet, as some rural areas still don’t have robust LTE coverage nearly a decade after the technology’s launch. Using re-farmed spectrum to complete LTE build outs in under-served areas would have a huge impact on rural broadband.

Work has already begun, including on alternatives

The industry is not waiting for 5G to transform rural broadband. Verizon has already launched its “5G” fixed internet service, but only in urban areas in Sacramento, Los Angeles, Houston, and Indianapolis. T-Mobile on the other hand is piloting its own fixed wireless broadband service in rural and under-served areas where it has the capacity to offer at least 50Mbps of bandwidth, with a goal of signing up 50,000 by the end of the year.

But those trials are small, and even as aggressive as T-Mobile is in its rural wireless claims, the company’s own estimates only place half of all US households within its fixed broadband service area by 2024. That’s five years away. Could a non-5G solution end up being the right path? One of the experts we talked to said yes.

Deborah Simpier is the co-founder of Oregon-based Althea, a project that lets communities link their routers together to create a mesh network, allowing these router owners to resell internet access to others. Custom firmware is installed on the routers, and together the network can provide speeds faster than current broadband offerings.

While it still requires residents of a community or area to purchase a single high-speed inbound connection, the “last-mile” of distributing that connection is done by the decentralized network in a pay-as-you-go model.

It’s likely the urban-rural digital divide will only get larger especially when it comes to speed.

“In rural areas, community and municipal networks can share costs more evenly and have better access to local resources,” Simpier told Digital Trends. “A decentralized solution utilizes local partners to relay bandwidth, which creates a flexible network in which local people and businesses are able to share the costs and revenue of the network.”

While initial setup costs might be high, it is a much faster way to get fast broadband to rural areas, and at a low cost. “These inclusive solutions are better adapted to serving the needs of a sparsely populated area and providing the rural population with lower cost and higher speed connection,” she said.

A dose of reality

Regardless of the claims of anyone looking to serve rural America’s broadband-starved consumers, true 5G or 5G-like connections are years away at best. In the meantime, it’s likely the urban-rural digital divide will only get larger — without any direct government involvement in the near term — especially when it comes to speed.

But that’s not to say no one’s paying attention: In fact, there are more players in this space than whom we’ve talked to here — and not everyone thinks 5G is the answer.

The bottom line? Most rural Americans will have to continue to wait, perhaps many years more. But with the speed the technology industry moves, the solution to America’s rural broadband woes may be right around the corner. It’s just wise to not place all your bets on 5G alone.

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