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Experts worry 5G could widen digital divide in cities

Experts worry 5G could widen digital divide in cities

The rollout of 5G high-speed wireless networks are expected to usher in an era of super-fast internet speeds, but many experts worry that the new technology will only leave poor urban communities further behind.

The industry and lawmakers have focused attention on ensuring that rural and urban areas both have access to 5G, but many advocates warn that the digital divide within big cities could also worsen.

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Current policies and the way that 5G technology is installed mean that the latest update to wireless broadband will very likely pass over the poorest communities in cities in favor of wealthier locales willing to pay more, telecommunications experts warn.

“It’s going to be first deployed areas in highest demand and highest demand for capacity,” said Doug Brake, a telecom policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “Higher demand tends to be in wealthier areas.”

Part of the issue involves how 5G technology is deployed. To disseminate 5G broadband, carriers primarily install “small cells,” devices that beam out broadband at relatively short ranges within about a half-mile radius.

That's a change from relying on cellphone towers as 4G and 3G networks did. Those cell towers sent out blanket wireless signals much further, making it harder to exclude certain neighborhoods from coverage.

The short-range deployment for 5G means that if they want to, wireless providers could pick and choose neighborhoods for access to high-speed connections.

Telecom experts who spoke to The Hill said it is inevitable that wireless providers will prioritize wealthier neighborhoods, targeting affluent customers most ready and willing to pay for faster connections.

The concern about poorer communities losing out on 5G is compounded by the fact that people in those urban communities, primarily minorities, "rely more heavily on their phone for internet access," than wealthier people, according to studies, including one by Pew Research Center.

For critics of the wireless industry, this isn't a new pattern.

Dana Floberg, policy manager at Free Press, a tech consumer advocacy group, said there is a history of the wireless industry seeking the highest profits from its wealthiest customers as it leaves rural groups and lower-income communities of color behind.

“These companies have made the decision that it’s not profitable enough to build out in certain areas because it won’t give them adequate return on investment,” Floberg said. “So they’ll first go to wealthier areas and see if they even build out in other areas.”

Floberg and others think that doesn’t have to be the case, but worry that it will continue because of a lack of action from lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“What we’ve seen so far from the FCC and occasionally in Congress is these policy efforts that do very little to retool this 5G development that would promote disconnected folks being able to take advantage of it,” she said.

Floberg singled out a new FCC policy approved on Wednesday that would limit local governments' ability to regulate small cell deployment. The move, which caps the fees cities can charge wireless providers, was seen as a big win for telecom giants like Verizon and AT&T.

Some cities like San Jose, Calif., have used the fees they charged to put money into expanding broadband access in underserved communities.

Floberg said the FCC failed to secure commitments from companies that would ensure 5G access to both wealthier and poorer communities.

“Local governments are on the front lines of trying to get their communities are included in these new broadband developments,” Floberg explained. “The way that our policy strategy has been so far is to just trust telecom companies and leave them to do what they want without commitments, which often doesn’t go well.”

The FCC disputes this, contending that simply by making it cheaper to build out broadband, all communities will be served, even without the types of commitments Floberg wants.

But the agency also noted that it is considering the type of policy Floberg advocates.

“We have a pending rulemaking considering increasing buildout requirements for spectrum licenses,” an FCC spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “Also, by reducing the cost of infrastructure buildout, we make it more likely that wireless infrastructure will be deployed in areas where the business case is most marginal, and that includes low-income communities.”

Industry groups and lawmakers have cheered the coming of 5G, which they say will bring much faster internet speeds and allow networks to deal with the soaring demand for broadband and rise in internet-connected devices.

Brake said such technological progress always involved disparities.

“There is always a leading edge of new technology. Uneven deployment of 5G is potentially a real problem for the digital divide, but it's a problem we'd be lucky to have,” he said.

“If 5G had to be built everywhere, it wouldn't get built anywhere.”