Can 5G bridge the digital divide? Congress, experts divided on impact of next-generation wireless

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Rep. Suzan DelBene and Infosys President Ravi Kumar speak at a TecNation event in Seattle, organized by U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s tech policy arm. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Roughly 163 million Americans are not using broadband internet, according to Microsoft estimates. It’s a pervasive problem that impacts education attainment, economic opportunity, and access to modern healthcare.

Closing the broadband gap has proved tricky because private internet providers often don’t have financial incentives to build broadband infrastructure over long distances in sparsely populated areas. Some technologists believe the super-fast next generation of wireless technology, 5G, could provide a solution. But there are many skeptics who worry that the same business model issues will leave rural America out, possibly widening the digital divide.

The topic came up again and again during an event Monday that brought members of Congress and executives from the technology industry together to discuss innovation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s tech policy arm hosted the speaker series at Seattle’s SURF Incubator.

Ravi Kumar, president of the India-based IT staffing giant Infosys, said he was bullish about 5G’s potential to reach rural America during a panel discussion with U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, moderated by Bloomberg’s Dina Bass.

“Leapfrogging into 5G here is an easier path to fix the broadband issue because you’re going to leapfrog from the present to the future directly,” he said. “That’s what a lot of other countries, where broadband is an issue, have done.”

But DelBene, who represents communities in Washington state ranging from Redmond to the Canadian border, was unconvinced.

“5G isn’t a magical answer in terms of the resources that are going to need to be applied in these areas where there might not be enough people to provide a profit incentive for the private sector,” DelBene said.

The challenge is 5G works by beaming broadband at short ranges, requiring hundreds of thousands of devices over long distances. That means cities will be the first to get the upgrade, since its more feasible to launch a substantial infrastructure project like that in a densely populated area.

From left: U.S. Reps Ami Bera, Kim Schrier, Greg Stanton, and Derek Kilmer. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

It’s a concern raised by Rep. Derek Kilmer during the event. Speaking on a separate panel, he noted that his district on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula “is in the bottom 20 percent of this country when it comes to access to high-speed internet.”

“This gets beyond whether you can watch Season 3 of Stranger Things and see if the kids make it out of the Upside-Down,” he said. “This is, do you have educational opportunity? Do you have entrepreneurial opportunity? Imagine being an entrepreneur with a really innovative product that you can’t get to market.”

“My hope is that as Congress takes up the issue of infrastructure, that it thinks broadly about that, that it includes things like broadband access,” he said.

President Donald Trump and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai have a plan to expand 5G access through a new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund which will “inject $20.4 billion into high-speed broadband networks in rural America over the next decade” by repurposing funds.

The private sector insists that 5G broadband will lead to more connectivity for rural areas. That’s one of the selling points T-Mobile is using to convince federal regulators to approve its merger with Sprint. But to make widespread 5G a reality for rural America, it will likely require federal funding and collaboration between the public and private sectors.

“We’re going to have to make that investment and make it available throughout our rural areas because we haven’t lived up to that commitment,” DelBene said.

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