5G’s Potential for Bridging the Digital Divide

5G means a lot more than just a stronger mobile signal and faster data throughput. It’s going to take a little while to get there, but the speed, latency, and bandwidth advantages of 5G will ultimately transform our world and the way that we live, work, and communicate.

Of all of the potentially transformative impacts of 5G, one of the most often overlooked is the potential of 5G to help bridge the digital divide — the line between those that have broadband Internet access and those who don’t. Broadband Internet access is key to mobile healthcare, educational, and employment opportunities — particularly in the years to come.

The global pandemic has shined an even bigger spotlight on this gap, as broadband access proved indispensable in enabling people to work, learn, and even see their physician from home.

There are several factors that prevent some people from having broadband access. One of the biggest culprits is the lack of broadband penetration in rural areas and underdeveloped countries. According to the Federal Communications Commission, roughly 21 million Americans lacked broadband access in 2019.

5G won’t magically remove all of the barriers to broadband access in the US or the world as a whole. But it does have the potential to help bridge the digital divide.

The yellow areas on the map show gaps in broadband coverage in the US. Source: FCC

As mobile network operators begin to deploy 5G networks that use Frequency Range 1 ­— particularly in the low-band 600-900 MHz portion of Frequency Range 1 — they will make available wireless broadband to some geographies that lack the fiber infrastructure needed to bring fixed broadband to homes and businesses.

While it is expected to be some time before 5G cell towers and other infrastructure are deployed in many rural areas, there is also another development on the horizon that can help bring 5G to these less populated regions. Release 17 from the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) ­— expected to be frozen next year — will make non-terrestrial network (NTN) technology a part of 5G. This is a change from previous generations of wireless communications technologies, which were based entirely on terrestrial (or earth-bound) infrastructure.

NTNs will use satellites (and potentially other vehicles such as high-altitude platforms like balloons) to augment existing 5G networks. In addition to filling gaps in network coverage and providing coverage to passengers on airplanes, trains, and boats, NTNs will bring 5G service to rural areas that lack population density and wireless communications infrastructure.

In the years to come, as more terrestrial 5G infrastructure is deployed and NTNs become a reality, fewer people will reside on the wrong side of the digital divide. This will yield more educational, economic, and health benefits for millions of people.

For more information on 5G NTN technology, see:

Satellites Bolster 5G Through Non-Terrestrial Networks