It seems everywhere I turn there are stories about fifth generation (5G) wireless: Will the U.S. win the global race to 5G? Will 5G close the digital divide? Will 5G replace my home broadband? The federal government has joined in asking these questions—with the FCC and the White House holding public discussions this week on how to support 5G development in the near future.
But what is it, exactly?
“5G” describes an evolving set of next generation technologies that represent the newest and fastest wireless connectivity. Many providers are planning to launch 5G services this year using mobile wireless, fixed wireless, or both. And though 5G wireless technology is making headlines worldwide, there’s an important but often overlooked component missing in the discourse—the wired broadband networks. Why? Because 5G can’t and won’t exist without an extensive, ubiquitous wired backbone, and the hundreds of billions of dollars of investment by America’s broadband companies required to deploy them.
In fact, the technology we know and experience as “wireless” is—and always has been—supported behind the scenes by wired infrastructure. This includes your cell phone’s internet and your home’s internet connection. Mobile cellular networks depend on wireline backhaul connections to cell sites, with nearly all wireless traffic traveling over a backbone of fixed networks. They are only wireless in the proverbial “last mile.”
And your home’s WiFi is really just a short range extension of a fixed broadband network, be it cable, DSL, or fiber. Put a different way, when in the near future I send a video via a 5G network from my iPhone in Washington, D.C. to a friend in Oakland, California, some 3,000 miles away, that data will transit wireline networks for 2,998 miles of that trip. Its path would be wireless for just a single mile on each end of the journey.
As with previous generations of wireless communications, users will experience 5G via “wireless” devices; but the ultra-fast speeds will be brought to us behind the scenes by one—or a combination—of those wired connections. So wired infrastructure, including increasingly dense fiber networks, will be essential to making widespread 5G a reality.
Until this solid infrastructure is extended further throughout the country—including to our most remote areas—the benefits of the latest, ultra-high-speed wireless technologies will be realized chiefly by those living in cities and close suburbs, which could exacerbate America’s urban-rural digital divide.
Regardless of the “how,” closing that digital divide is one of the primary, shared goals of the nation’s wireline broadband providers. USTelecom members are investing billions of dollars and working across the country on the ground to do so. Industry investment of over $70 billion annually has helped increase rural connectivity by 71 percent over the last decade. That sort of dedication deserves more than a passing nod in the next-generation connectivity conversation, knowing that—in fact—these investments are enabling the strong wireless connections that are stealing the show.
America’s broadband innovators, be they small, mid-sized, and large, agree that it is now more important than ever to dive deep into the conversation of closing the digital divide. While it will be a challenge, an arsenal of technologies exists that will help close the gap. Broadband providers are using the most economical combinations of technologies like fiber, cellular, and small cells. Meanwhile, providers are developing technologies like fixed wireless, which could be make a significant contribution to closing the urban-rural digital divide.
We need all hands on deck to bring more Americans online. It’s great to see our broadband providers, government agencies, and the White House doing more to support the development of next-generation wireless connectivity. But the fact is, wireless is all about the wires.
Jonathan Spalter is the president and CEO of USTelecom, a telecommunications industry trade association representing broadband service providers, manufacturers and suppliers in the world of internet-based communications and entertainment.
NOTE: This op-ed originally appered in Multichannel News on September 26, 2018. View the op-ed here.