5G’s segmentation may create another digital divide
Over the past year, supercomputers and artificial intelligence fast-tracked COVID-19 vaccines, and cloud-based tools kept many of us working and learning remotely. Yet, there are still millions of people in underserved communities who lack the affordable broadband access needed for remote work, telehealth, and distance learning.
The push for 5G deployment and rural broadband throughout the U.S. is getting stronger thanks to new legislative initiatives, including the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, congressional proposals like the LIFT America Act and state-level efforts to expand broadband access, such as Senate Bill 5 and House Bill 5 in Texas. This is positive momentum for the country, but it will only go so far without an open 5G network infrastructure to ensure digital inclusion for all — and U.S. competitiveness on the world stage. We need to invest in 5G infrastructure now to help us scale nationally.
To fulfill the potential of 5G to revolutionize industries and stimulate the economy, we need to rethink how networks should be built. This means shifting away from legacy telecom infrastructure to a new ecosystem composed of the U.S. IT, cloud and telecom industries working together to create a modern wireless network platform that is virtual, software-defined, open, and automated. This will enable us to build for the future and create good jobs that promote equity.
Building an innovation ecosystem
So far, efforts to develop a 5G network have been fragmented, with many regions of our country seeing no 5G deployment at all. This can threaten digital inclusion work in our communities, restrict innovation-based economic development, and put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage. Broad accessibility is also critical to the high-tech industry contributing to an open 5G ecosystem, which in turn will grow the digital economy.
Telecom companies are already investing significantly in their 5G networks, with $81 billion of spectrum auctioned off in January and billions more expected in another auction slated for October. But as companies commit to major debt-funded purchases of spectrum they may lack the capital and incentives to build the infrastructure needed to ensure inclusivity.
The real solution lies with investment to modernize the core digital infrastructure, devices and services, centered on a modern open architecture for 5G, but the current industry structure is not aligned with this goal, and the existing ecosystem to enable it is limited.
It’s important to recognize that 5G is much more than just an evolution of 4G. Since 5G has new, higher performance technologies in addition to more traditional wireless access, it has the potential to deliver true Gigabit speed low latency mobile access. To accomplish that, a multitude of additional cellular towers along with a sophisticated network of virtual infrastructure is needed. This will generate a 5G network that is readily accessible, especially to the communities that need it the most.
Further, the hardware components needed to create this ecosystem can, and should be, produced domestically. The public and private sectors have a shared responsibility to ensure network security, create good-paying jobs and avoid dependence on other nations.
This is a monumental project which can only be accomplished with a higher level of public investment in both delivering infrastructure but also catalyzing the U.S. ecosystems to supply the underlying technology needed. We need investment by the federal, state and city governments, as well as a commitment to the Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) standard to ensure 5G networks are accessible to everyone.
Leading the American economy into the ‘data era’
As it stands, the U.S. risks falling behind other nations that are making large scale investments in their own 5G networks at a brisk pace. We have the resources and talent to catch up and lead the world in 5G, but first the government and the private sector must work collaboratively to create a foundational 5G wireless ecosystem in the U.S.
We recently took a step in the right direction with the passage of bicameral legislation, driven by strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, to provide funding for essential 5G infrastructure research and development. It’s an encouraging start, but more collaboration is needed to ensure 5G access for every American and support U.S. innovation.
Connectivity is economic opportunity and the key to a diverse, competitive workforce. We must come together to provide the equal access to technology and advanced connectivity that will ensure all are empowered to lead the country forward.
John Roese is Chief Technology Officer at Dell Technologies.