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Will 5G widen the global digital divide?

Despite the concerns, the significant economic gains, and technological advancements that 5G promises can not be ignored.

Renu MehtaRenu Mehta | Devdiscourse | Updated: 06-12-2019 13:24 IST | Created: 05-12-2019 13:51 IST
Will 5G widen the global digital divide?
Image Credit: Flickr/ Christoph Scholz

1G, the first-generation mobile network was about voice, its successor 2G gave consumers improved access to voice calls and text messaging, furthermore, 3G drove the growth of multimedia applications along with voice and texting and after the arrival of 4G, mobile internet experience went to a completely different level and the world is still embracing it. And now, 5G, the next-generation cellular technology promises to offer large bandwidth, lower latency and 100 times higher speeds as compared to what the existing 4G LTE networks deliver. But notably, even today in the 5G era, 2G and 3G continue to be the predominant cellular technology in many lower and middle-income countries.

The 5G era has almost commenced with South Korea and China being its early adopter. China, last month, rolled out 5G services in 50 cities including Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen while global adoption is expected to take off in 2021.

The new wireless network technology is more about connecting things other than making cellular connections faster. The upcoming high-speed 5G network will pave the way for emerging technologies like IoT, Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality, to name a few. From connected healthcare to smart mobility, smart cities to smart manufacturing, smart buildings to smart energy distribution, the emerging technology will drastically change the nature of connectivity and service delivery whilst simultaneously solving the communication challenges the industry is facing today. 5G, undoubtedly, is a key driver for global connectivity, hence it is a necessary tool to promote the next phase of digital transformation.

Video Credit: ITU

What about the digital divide?

Globally, 3.6 billion people do not have access to the affordable Internet, with most of the disconnected folks belonging to the least developed or developing countries. One part of the world is ready to brace for 5G, while the other half still lacks an affordable and reliable internet connection, deepening the digital divide and limiting the socio-economic development.

To ensure that no one is left behind in the hyper-connected world and for the better implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is extremely important to provide affordable internet access to the remaining half of the population that is not yet online.

Almost every country in the world is grappling with a widening digital divide that hinders economic growth and the pathway to social inclusion. For example, India has the world's second-highest internet user base with 455 million users. But, according to the India Internet 2019 report published by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), there exists a significant urban-rural digital divide. The report reveals that, in rural India, 57 percent of internet users access the net daily as compared to 72 percent of urban Internet users. Also, one-third of urban users access the Internet for more than one hour, while, a similar proportion of rural users access for around 15-30 minutes, owing to poor connectivity, non-affordability, and other socio-economic barriers.

Not only developing economies, but advanced economies like the United States also grapple with the issue of the digital divide. According to a factsheet published by The Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 21 million Americans lack broadband connectivity, most of them concentrated in rural areas.

Many experts believe that in the early years, uneven deployment of the next-generation technology in rural areas will potentially widen the pre-existing digital divide. Unlike the previous generations, 5G is incredibly expensive to deploy, which means, not everyone will be lucky enough to reap the benefits of 5G technology. The cost to deploy a small cell-ready 5G network can range from USD 6.8 million for a small city to USD 55.5 million for a densely populated city. Also,

  • 5G relies on higher radio frequencies and network densification
  • 5G needs fiber backhaul to meet high speeds and low latency demands

Other factors including 5G spectrum pricing and sharing and the need for compatible devices will delay the adoption of next-generation technology in the least developed regions of the world. According to Deloitte, 5G wireless technology deployment requires a roughly 10-year sustained investment cycle, and countries late to its adoption will still need to invest significant time and resources to effectively use the new products and services that it enables.

Innovation can't be stopped

Despite the concerns, the significant economic gains, and technological advancements that 5G promises can not be ignored. In the United States alone, deploying the next generation of high-speed 5G wireless networks could create up to three million jobs and add approximately USD 500 billion to GDP through direct and indirect benefits. In India, the generation leap is expected to create a cumulative economic impact of USD 1 trillion by 2035.

The high up-front investments may be a little risky but given the potential business opportunities and high return-on-investment (ROI), it will be worth taking the risk. Policy interventions and public-private partnerships (PPPs) will help achieve the mission of inclusive and equitable access to next-generation technology.

Developed countries' initial adoption of 5G networks is expected to exacerbate the current digital divide, as developing countries are likely to take longer to implement 5G networks. Developing countries can, however, use existing ecosystems and networks to provide universal and affordable access to ICTs. Mobile networks can be gradually upgraded once the challenges to develop a sustainable 5G system have been overcome.

International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

Last but not least, the governments, industry players and other stakeholders should collaborate at regional, national and international levels to develop national broadband plans and ICT infrastructure. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), specialized agency of the United Nations, calls for adopting the following legal and regulatory actions to facilitate 5G network deployment

  • Supporting the use of affordable wireless coverage to reduce the digital divide;
  • Enhancing the availability and quality of existing 4G networks in the run-up to 5G.
  • Policy-makers and operators should only consider deploying on-demand 5G networks
  • Commercial incentives such as grants, or PPPs to stimulate investment in 5G networks.
  • Timely availability of spectrums

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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