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The Future of 5G and closing the ‘Digital Divide’

Written by David Hennell, Business Development Director, National Broadband

As our personal and professional lives become increasingly and inextricably linked to the internet, access to fast and reliable broadband connection is not just beneficial but vital. The pandemic has brought this issue into sharp focus, but even with the advances of 5G and significant investment into fibre solutions, the ‘Digital Divide’ between urban and rural areas is still very marked and must be overcome.

The current urban and rural imbalance of 5G provision 

5G provides exciting possibilities. Majorly improved speeds and reliability, reduced latency and the ability to connect more devices all offer huge potential both to improve the lives of consumers and to have a dramatic impact on industry. For consumers, their internet will be far less likely to freeze or buffer and they’ll be able to stream their favourite tv shows, game online with friends and download large files all simultaneously. In business, 5G has great scope to drive growth in IoT, allowing businesses to access new devices and data to increase efficiency and innovation.

However, unless you’re currently residing in an urban area, you’re unlikely to have experienced the benefits of improved digital connectivity. In fact, in some of the most remote areas of the UK many are still languishing with internet speeds that city-dwellers would regard as prehistoric.

Improving rural digital connectivity with 5G

Despite this, there is potential for that to change in 2022.  The majority of investment in 5G we have seen so far has been in mid-band 5G. Mid-band 5G provides significant improvements in connectivity performance, easily surpassing ultrafast (100Mbps) levels. However, mid-band frequency transmissions don’t travel far and require a significant deployment of infrastructure. Consequently, due to commercial and technical reasons, its provision has been reserved for areas of high population density.

However, this year we can expect low-band 5G to also become available, as the Government has now made these lower frequencies available for use. Low-band transmissions will allow 5G to cover much greater distances and reach more rural locations. Whilst speeds won’t reach such dizzying heights, low-band 5G will provide a significantly improved baseline of internet coverage across the country. The improved connectivity this will bring to those digitally disadvantaged will be huge.

5G also has some clear advantages in comparison to fibre broadband which often is unable to provide broadband to properties in more remote and rural parts of the UK. Quite simply, laying new cabling to remote houses in the Lake District or Scottish Highlands is not only difficult and time-consuming, but also extremely costly and so financially prohibitive for many providers. Low-band 5G can go a long way in helping to improve the connectivity of properties in these rural locations.

Closing the ‘Digital Divide’

Despite tremendous strides made in tech, we still see too many people finding themselves trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide. According to Ofcom, there are 600,000  properties in the UK that can only access broadband at speeds of 10Mbps or slower. Such poor connections prevent people from performing the most basic tasks online and hinder rural economic growth, yet simultaneously with the progress of fibre and 5G, some consumers in urban areas can already access speeds of 1Gbps.

The availability of low-band 5G offers the opportunity for telecoms and internet service providers to make significant inroads in redressing the digital divide that currently exists. It’s imperative that neither the industry nor the Government forgets those left behind by the advancement made in technology and that both pursue these solutions. The potential benefits to people’s lives are huge and life changing.

Low-band 5G’s potential to improve the digital connectivity of rural areas and bridge the digital divide will not only have a significant impact on the quality of life of individuals but can also spearhead economic growth and turn back the tide of economic rural decay. The Government has had strong rhetoric when it comes to its ‘Levelling Up’ agenda and is pouring significant investment into fibre solutions. However, more must be done – the Government’s current ‘fibre centric’ approach risks leaving out those most in need.

There is no silver bullet here. Even 5G has its pitfalls and is not guaranteed to solve all      connectivity issues for every property in the UK. Yet, a hybrid approach that looks to utilise the full potential of both 5G and fibre will ensure no one is left behind and severely digitally disadvantaged. The availability of low-band 5G in the UK is a significant step and it’s vital to ensure the technology is leveraged to improve the digital connectivity of those who have the greatest need.

If we are serious about ‘levelling up’, closing the ‘Digital Divide’ and realising the full potential of improved digital connectivity, every property in the UK must be enabled to experience its benefits.