5G – the good, the bad, and the things we hear again and again

Last Friday I happened to catch NPR’s Science Friday’s segment on The Future of 5G. If 5G is still a mystery to you – it’s absolutely worth listening to the program. It starts with a 101 and then delves into potential security risks and what 5G means for rural areas. They also talk about 5G as a marketing term. Some providers talk about 5G Evolution, which isn’t yet 5G but is more like 4G+.

Minneapolis is a 5G shining star – I’d go on a limb to say that hosting the Superbowl last year put us on that map. 5G is great for high speed connectivity in small spaces. So if you want everyone in a packed stadium to be able to stream a football game from their awesome seats to friends back home – 5G is your friend. The MN Broadband Task Force heard all about the upgrades last February; policy changes like small cell equipment regulation helped.

Rural areas will have a tougher time getting on the 5G stage – in part because distance is not your friend with 5G. It takes a lot more equipment to support 5G than it does 4G. I think I heard 9 times the equipment. Someone can please correct me if I’m wrong. That kind of infrastructure is expensive and in rural areas it’s hard to make it up in volume. Mainstreet publications, such as Fortune, have pointed out that to be ready, rural areas need more fiber.

Last week, FCC Chair Pai and President Trump announced federal programs intended to help the US “win the race to 5G.” Specifically they mentioned the following:

President Trump’s historic tax cuts and deregulatory actions have created incentives for the wireless industry to invest in 5G technology.

To ensure rural America is not left behind, the FCC aims to create a new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that will extend high-speed broadband to 4 million homes and small businesses.

The Benton Foundation has taken on the claims of the latest announcement…

An FCC fact sheet claims the $20.4 billion will be distributed in rural America over the next ten years. “It will provide funding through a reverse auction to service providers that will deploy infrastructure that will provide up to gigabit-speed broadband in parts of the country most in need of connectivity.” Chairman Pai claims, “The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund represents the FCC’s single biggest step yet to close the digital divide.”

Details of the plan began to emerge in the days after the White House event. We learned that the funding would come from essentially extending and rebranding the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) program. …

CAF is the program aimed at connecting rural and remote areas that are expensive to reach. The Obama-era FCC created CAF to support broadband instead of just traditional voice phone service. CAF II currently makes around $2 billion in insubsidies available for telecommunications providers each year. CAF II is scheduled to end in 2020.

The crux of Chairman Pai’s announcement is that he is proposing to extend CAF’s current $2 billion per year for another ten years.

One of the issues that I can see for folks on the frontlines is that while they are extending the speed minimum, it still won’t keep pace with urban counterparts…

FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would establish a minimum speed threshold of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads (25/3), as opposed to the current 10/1 Mbps. Wigfield also said the new program would be “technology neutral” and “open to all qualified providers,” but specifics about eligibility will depend on an FCC rulemaking not yet launched.

By comparison, the MN speed goals for 2022 are 25/3 and for 2026 are 100/20. So yes, the new speeds are faster – they are still not at pace of growth in other areas.

Reaction has been…

Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, characterized the proposal as “more of a rebranding than a new project,” although she was careful to note that details about it are still unclear. “I don’t think it’s significantly different,” she said. But the proposal was still welcomed. “We’re always happy when more money can go into rural communities,” Socia added. “And we’re really pleased to see them upping the speed.”

Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, said, “This is really just like slapping ‘new and improved!’ on the same package.”

Feld also said repurposing USF funds as proposed could prove legally problematic because the FCC decided in the 2017 net neutrality repeal to re-reclassify broadband as a Title I information service rather than a Title II telecommunications service. “It is hard to see how you can do this given that broadband is a Title I information service and USF is restricted to Title II telecommunications.”

This entry was posted in Policy, Rural, Wireless by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

2 thoughts on “5G – the good, the bad, and the things we hear again and again

  1. I’m not convinced that Mpls is a “5G shining star”, since no one has a 5G mobile device to test it with. I believe there are a few small cell base stations around, but they seem to be operating on LTE. I am not convinced that either the new frequencies or the new topology is in place. But, again, how could anyone know, when there are no mobile devices to test it with? Unless I am badly mistaken, the Super Bowl enhancements were faster 4G, possibly with some carrier aggregation. Wish I was wrong, but don’t think so…

    Once the 5G devices and standard are available, rural areas will benefit only if the carriers use lower frequencies, which have greater range and vegetation resistance. The rest of the world has gone that route, but so far we’re stuck in short wavelengths which will benefit the chosen ones, but not the rest of us.

  2. Brian – you may be right!! The NPR clip gets into the grey area (for consumers) between 5G and enhanced 4G. As end users, we really don’t know.

    Either way – Minneapolis will likely get the coverage it needs – while as you point out the rural areas will likely not see improvements.

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