Closing the Digital Divide: Is Wi-Fi 6 The Key?

Traditional networks have failed to close the digital divide; the Wi-Fi 6 standard could be fast enough (and cheap enough) to finally address the problem

The phrase "digital divide" describes the inequality of access to technology between communities, cities, and countries. Not everyone can or will use the same devices or connection speeds but with the internet an increasingly prevalent part of life affecting work, education, and health, it's critical society not leave anyone behind.

What Can Wi-Fi Do to Help the Digital Divide?

The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) suggests that Wi-Fi is key to closing the connectivity gap in remote and otherwise under-connected areas.

Two children doing homework on a laptop

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Typically, an area will receive internet access with physical cables that run to homes and businesses. From there, hardware like a router will create the wireless signal, or people can use an Ethernet bridge for a direct connection. But generally speaking, an actual line of some kind has to come into a building to receive and transmit data.

Unlike traditional networking, which requires physical lines and cables to go to each subscriber's house, the WBA is confident Wi-Fi 6 can help broadcast a signal from a single site via microwave to cover a large area that wouldn't otherwise receive service. This plan wouldn't require running new lines and could also use existing infrastructure.

Another possibility involves cellular service providers expanding to provide Wi-Fi services. This option, the WBA claims, will be cheaper than expanding their normal networks. According to the WBA, they could install Wi-Fi equipment, including solar power and storage, antennas, and installation, for five percent of the cost of a new cell tower.

What Causes the Digital Divide?

One of the main issues keeping the digital divide active is the failure of telecom companies to build infrastructure in remote, rural, or developing areas. The reason is often money: With the cost of cabling running between $8,500 and $30,000 per mile, it makes more sense financially to only undertake these projects in cities, which have more potential customers.

Low-angle view of a communications tower against a blue sky

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Government funding, however, can pick up where the industry has fallen off. Recently, the U.S. has started initiatives to make broadband more available, including a $500 million fund for rural internet in September 2022 and the multi-billion-dollar Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, which aims to address the digital divide for Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

Not every country has the resources for programs on this scale, though, which is another reason the digital divide continues. Differences in population density, economic status, and other resources can also affect the availability of digital resources.

Unfortunately, the problems that cause the digital divide worsens as the world increasingly relies on online resources. A report by digital communications company Cisco links a lack of broadband to several global issues, including:

  • Increased poverty due to fewer opportunities for remote work and education.
  • Lower quality of life/life expectancy because of decreased access to telehealth and general information.
  • Slow economic development from less availability of outside resources and training.

How Severe Is the Digital Divide?

The pandemic has driven more parts of daily life online than ever before. As internet access became necessary for healthcare, school, employment, and basic social interaction, it became more obvious who was going without it.

Young child studying online with a tablet in the backseat of a car

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Cisco offers some numbers based on its research:

  • 3.7 billion people lack internet access
  • Only 35 percent of people living in developing countries are connected
  • 80 percent of people in South Africa don't have basic internet, and wealth inequality is the direct cause
  • 14 percent of American households with school-aged children are unconnected

People without internet at home must often rely on public options like libraries and coffee shops, but economic issues can also affect this solution, as people may not have reliable transportation, either personal or private. In some rural parts of the U.S., for example, students had school bus transportation pulled out from under them during the pandemic, leaving them with no way to even get into the closest town to find public Wi-Fi and attend online classes.

Connecting unconnected areas and people provides economic growth, higher standards of living, and increased development, but the lack of participation in the increasingly online world is partly why these conditions are so bad in the first place.

It's a cyclical issue that results in people struggling because they don't have internet and, in turn, not receiving internet because of the conditions that cause them to struggle. Whether that's wealth inequality, rurality, or a combination of those or other factors.

Can Wi-Fi Really Help?

The traditional ways of building networks have failed to address or close the digital divide. Because the industry currently relies on expensive infrastructure that needs installation and maintenance while remaining profitable to the companies that build them, other solutions are necessary.

Digitally generated image of a green cityscape in the shape of a Wi-Fi symbol on a blue background

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Wi-Fi seems to offer a more convenient alternative to physical fiber and cable-based networks, and it should be able to serve more people more easily.

The WBA believes that the Wi-Fi 6 standard will be fast enough to help address these problems while presenting less of an investment risk, so it looks promising. As Wi-Fi continues to speed up and become more efficient, it could do more to close the digital divide than the current methods of networking.

  • How fast is Wi-Fi 6?

    Wi-Fi 6 can potentially reach speeds up to 9.6 Gbps (1.2 GBps). These speeds are up to twice what Wi-Fi 5 can transmit. In practice, it may not reach this full potential, but it is still fast.

  • What is a Wi-Fi 6 router?

    Simply put, a Wi-Fi 6 router is one that works with the Wi-Fi 6 standard. You'll want to look for the designation "802.11ax" on a router or other device; that's the technical name for Wi-Fi 6. Compatible hardware can handle the faster speeds that it's capable of, although you'll have a limit from the maximum speed of your internet service.

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