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5G digital divide:
What it is
and how to help
bridge the gap

Author: Heidi Vella

Wireless internet and technology are integral to everyday life, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened the world's dependence on them. The need for connectivity is universal—but the availability does not match the need. Lack of devices, prohibitive setup costs and inconsistent internet access have created a digital divide that isolates wide swaths of people.

5G can open up new avenues for connectivity.  To help reduce the 5G digital divide, business leaders must understand not just how they can use 5G, but how 5G can help level the playing field.

What is the digital divide?

A technology-dependent society compounds the effects of socioeconomic stratification. The digital divide separates people with easy access to the latest technology and decent connectivity and people without it. People who cannot benefit from the digital age are at an inherent disadvantage, creating disparities in education, healthcare and digital skills.

This digital disparity can occur for myriad reasons.

  • Low income, which inhibits access to technology and the internet
  • Living in an area with low or poor connectivity, often an acute problem in rural areas
  • IT illiteracy, which prevents people from getting the most from emerging technologies

Factors such as age, socioeconomic status, education level and disability can also widen digital divides.

Bridging the 5G digital divide

Compared with 4G and Wi-Fi networks, 5G offers faster connection speeds, quicker downloads, lower latency and the ability to connect more devices in a network or area. The next-generation network could power new services, and potentially help level the digital playing field by creating economic stimulus, improving services and widening networking coverage—but only if the communities that need it can access it.

Increasing connectivity to some rural areas

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 97% of Americans in urban areas have access to a high-speed, fixed service internet. In rural areas, that number falls to 65%.

The discrepancy is largely due to logistics. Laying fiber cable over long distances and wide areas is expensive and difficult, but 5G wireless broadband could prove a worthwhile investment for those communities. Rural homes and businesses, where 5G becomes available, could get fast wireless internet through either 5G fixed wireless access services or 5G MiFi portable routers. The benefits could be transformative—the connectivity could give rural communities a new tool to boost economies, generate new jobs, create commercial opportunities and establish innovation hubs.

Increase productivity and boost economies

As income increases, so does the likelihood of having high-speed internet access at home—and the COVID-19 pandemic magnified this aspect of the digital divide.

Much of 5G's potential lies in its potential to create economic value, and the fifth-generation network will be a critical component in accelerating post-pandemic recovery through digital transformation and digital infrastructure upgrades. According to McKinsey, the most promising use cases of 5G could, if implemented, increase the global GDP between $1.2 trillion and $2 trillion by 2030.

There are key opportunities in infrastructure and manufacturing that could leverage the device density enabled by a 5G network. Digitizing towns and cities, for example, could help provide more seamless services. And wireless factories built around the Internet of Things could operate 24 hours a day—increasing productivity, reducing the cost of consumer goods and creating new jobs.

Facilitate better training and education

The faster speeds and increased bandwidth afforded by 5G can transform education by providing access to virtual learning and by ensuring that people acquire essential digital skills. 5G can also help mitigate digital exclusion by letting schools work with many more connected devices without compromising service quality.

Real-time immersive learning experiences using augmented and virtual reality can capture imaginations. New skills could be taught with 3D printing and drones. The cost of these technologies is falling rapidly; 5G could enable their use at scale. 

Conserve key resources and improve essential services

Paired with secure private networking, 5G's increased device density could enable the Internet of Things at scale, which could enable more efficient use of natural resources and improved provision of services.

The farming industry is the biggest user of ground and surface water, accounting for around 80% of the United States' water use, the United States Department of Agriculture says. 5G-enabled agricultural technology for use measurement and monitoring crop quality can significantly reduce water waste—preserving the precious resource and making it more affordable for everyone.

5G can also empower better, more affordable healthcare. More affordable wearables with 5G connectivity could spur an uptick in personalized healthcare while also lowering costs—making it accessible to everyone. STL Partners expects 5G to bring cost savings of approximately $94 billion to the global healthcare industry by 2030.

What business leaders can do about the 5G digital divide

By embracing digital innovation and understanding the cost and productivity benefits 5G brings to their businesses, customers and communities, executives can lead the charge in bridging existing accessibility gaps and preventing new ones from forming.

By deploying 5G-enabled technologies, businesses can provide better, more cost-efficient services that help level the playing field and create opportunities to close the 5G digital divide.  With 5G implementation, businesses can take advantage of faster connections to their customers.  Doing so can help secure the social license to operate and foster a talent pipeline. As with any technological shift, this adjustment can come with upfront costs. But it is an investment—not just for future balance books, but for future employees and communities.

Where managed services providers can help

The internet is essential for an equitable society. 5G is the future of connectivity. Its opportunities and use cases are vast—perhaps overwhelmingly so.

A managed services provider can help your business embrace the next generation of networking. Better still, it can help you pinpoint the most cost-effective use cases and uncover ways you can give back to your communities. Digital inclusion means ensuring everyone can benefit from technology—and the future is inclusive.

Discover how Verizon 5G can transform businesses and communities and help close the 5G digital divide.