How 5G Could Help Close the Digital Divide

Making the 'last mile' shorter

Key Takeaways

  • Qualcomm announced a new 5G Fixed Wireless Access platform that could help bring stable internet to more users.
  • New devices will make use of the technology to provide increased coverage range for 5G connections.
  • Advancements like this can be used to help push broader access to stable internet connections with gigabit-capable speeds.
Reeltender Mo Laussie watches fiber-optic cable as he helps install the cable unto telephone poles in Louisville, CO.
Michael Smith / Getty Images

New technology from Qualcomm will help pave the way for more accessible broadband internet, experts say.

Getting reliable internet access in rural or marginalized communities has always been difficult, thanks to the increasing costs of laying new cable or fiber wire. Qualcomm’s new second-generation 5G Fixed Wireless Access platform aims to deliver fiber-capable speeds without the need to lay miles of wire. Experts believe this could help narrow the digital divide even more by giving additional users access to reliable and faster internet.

"A lot of the attention around 5G has to do with cell phones," Peter Holslin, a writer at HighSpeedInternet.com and an expert in 5G connectivity. told Lifewire via email.

"This is a big step forward when it comes to 5G technology because it gives cellular companies the platform necessary to make 5G home internet a commercially viable product on a wide scale."

The Gap

The broadband divide—sometimes referred to as the digital divide—is a term used to refer to the gap between those who have reliable broadband internet access and those who don’t. Over the years this gap has closed, though there are still large numbers of customers who either don’t have access at all or who only have access to slower speeds.

According to The State of Broadband 2019 report, an estimated 57.8% of global households had access to the Internet at home as of 2018. This divide has only been made more apparent over the course of 2020, though, as kids within rural areas found themselves traveling miles to pick up and drop off work, or even completing their homework while connected to Wi-Fi hotspots set up in parking lots.

Two children asleep in the car holding electronic devices that could be used for schoolwork.
LightFieldStudios / Getty Images

While the FCC believes the gap is closing, others believe it isn’t closing fast enough, with Microsoft estimating in 2018 that nearly 163 million Americans were not using the Internet at broadband speeds. 

This isn’t an easy matter to solve, though, especially when factoring in the costs of expanding or upgrading internet service areas, which often requires internet service providers (ISPs) to dig trenches and lay miles of cable or fiber wire capable of carrying the internet connection to your home. Atlantech.net estimated that the cost of fiber wire itself ranged anywhere from $1 to $6 per foot back in January 2020. 

At that cost, laying fiber for just two additional miles outside of a current service area would cost the provider a minimum of $10,560 for the materials alone, before installation. It’s an expensive process, which often leads to certain areas being less likely to get upgraded or even accessible internet through traditional ISPs.

Building a Bridge

"The problem is getting this high-speed fiber connectivity; digging the trench, bringing it to the last mile, and sometimes—depending on if you’re in a city, a suburb, or a rural place—that last mile is 50 meters or maybe even a kilometer," Gautam Sheoran, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, explained on a call with Lifewire.

"While the FCC believes that the gap is closing, others believe that it isn’t closing fast enough."

But, what if there was a way to move beyond the expensive costs of laying new fiber cables, and instead deliver stable, broadband access through wireless connections? That’s the basic idea behind Qualcomm’s new Fixed Wireless Access platform.

Working in tandem with some of the company’s other recently announced advances, like the Snapdragon X65 Modem-RF, Qualcomm’s Fixed Wireless Access platform can get users access to gigabit speeds over much longer distances, without costing ISPs as much to expand. 

"Qualcomm's 5G Fixed Wireless Access is basically a prototype for a modem/router that you can install in your house to get Wi-Fi over a fixed-wireless connection from 5G transmitters outside," Holslin told us.

"It can pick up signals on a wide array of 5G bands, so it's more versatile than if it was limited to millimeter-wave 5G bands (which are super fast but can only reach devices within eyeshot of a 5G tower)."

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