The World’s Fastest Networks Will Fall Short Without Equal Access
- Half of America will have access to 5G technology by next year, but a shocking number of communities remain locked out of the high-speed internet connection they need to bridge the digital divide
- Getting everyone up to speed is critical to creating equitable economic opportunity in an ever-connected, increasingly tech-oriented, and mobile-first world
- Closing the broadband gap is essential to eliminate digital inequality that deepens racial and economic disparities nationwide
5G is at some doorsteps, but not all
The arrival of 5G is imminent. In fact, the CEO of Verizon claims that half the United States will have access to 5G in 2020, and Statista estimates that 2 billion people will be on 5G networks by 2024. These figures aren’t surprising, as the world has grown increasingly mobile-first and data-hungry in the past decade. The number of smartphone users has more than quadrupled in the past 10 years, and mobile data traffic has grown tenfold in the past five years. By all estimates, with the arrival of 5G these figures will continue to multiply.
However, nearly 30 million Americans still lack access to broadband internet. Specifically, 44 percent of U.S. households with an annual income under $30,000 are locked out of broadband services, shutting them out of everything from job searching and essential government services to health care and education. In this otherwise ever-connected world, the focus of U.S. telecommunications industry should be empowering the millions of underserved Americans with the digital literacy they need to secure jobs and thrive in a modern, tech-forward era.
Connecting the world through real-time broadband
The worldwide business impact of 4G is clear, bringing new technology like smartphone video conferences and mobile file sharing to our fingertips. Broadband connections enable industries like healthcare and security to help businesses and communities save hundreds of millions of dollars by optimizing processes through high-speed mobile connections. Smartphones have empowered lower-income earners to gain dependable access to the resources they need to fight poverty and debt, including online job boards and bill payments. Mobile gaming, which both relies on and drives the future of wireless technology, is a booming $70 billion market.
Nevertheless, 5G has the potential to blow 4G out of the water, offering real-time data transmission with speeds up to 10 to 20 gigabytes per second. To put that in perspective, upgrading to 5G makes it possible to download a three-hour movie to a smartphone in a matter of seconds. It also empowers consumers to play mobile games and esports on the go in flawless real-time speed. With 5G, hospitals will be able to perform live surgeries on patients thousands of miles away by controlling remote, robotic limbs. Skeptical about that one? It’s already happened.
“We strongly believe 5G is a game-changing technology when fully implemented that will help us support better hospital operations as well as provide the highest quality patient and staff experience,” said Dr. Shafiq Rab, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Rush University Medical Center, one of the few hospitals in the United States to already have 5G. “The technology will help enhance access to care, even from long distances, while also helping to decrease costs and improve efficiency.”
From holographic conference calls to smart cities with inter-communicating traffic lights, 5G is set to improve not only how we communicate, but how we live. Everything from your daily commute to your healthcare will face changes once 5G fully integrates into society.
Connectivity presents opportunity, but lack of connectivity prevents it
Despite impressive leaps in wireless capability, broadband connectivity has struggled to help those who need it most. Previous Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler and his successor Ajit Pai have both pressed for improved wireless coverage in rural and underserved areas. Poor connections negatively impact critical functions like business operations, education, job creation, and emergency services. Internet access is no longer a luxury – it’s a necessity. Even the United Nations concluded in 2016 that internet access is a human right.
“In today’s digital economy, access to broadband is essential,” said U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker. “To close the digital divide, we need to have accurate broadband maps that tell us where broadband is available and where it is not available at certain speeds.”
Digital literacy and broadband are essential to functioning and excelling in today’s world. Organizations like the World Economic Forum have consequently formed initiatives like the DQ Institute and the Coalition for Digital Intelligence, which promote the importance of not only IQ and EQ, but digital intelligence as well. Technological and digital skills also correlate with higher salaries and better career opportunities, driving an even more alarming digital divide for low-income communities that continues to grow.
Americans lacking broadband are further isolated from digital entertainment industries like gaming and esports, which require connectivity to access. With gaming projected to become a $300 billion market by 2025, millions of Americans lacking internet will miss the opportunity to participate in one of the world’s fastest-growing arenas. Mobile games, responsible for half the gaming market’s total revenue and accounting for over 70% of Apple’s App Store revenue, are also largely inaccessible without broadband.
Accessibility is vital for opportunity and equality
Inequality is a pressing issue for not only Americans, but the world. While technology enhances global productivity, growth, and innovation, those without access are being left behind. The longer the problem remains unchecked, the wider the gap grows between those fortunate enough to have access to digital intelligence and those without. A wider gap results in a less educated, less digitally capable society – critical faults in a modern, tech-oriented world.
In many ways, broadband has become just as much of a cornerstone for society as schools, emergency services, and courtrooms – it’s what keeps people and institutions running and connected. The discussion surrounding the next evolution of broadband can’t just be about speed. It has to address the need to bring generations around the world back into modernity before the divide grows too wide to fix.
Digital intelligence is the world’s best opportunity to bridge the inequality divide. Without properly considering accessibility in the next era of broadband, there’s a real risk of making the world a less equal place rather than a better connected one.