Stoping the 5G Digital Divide Before It Happens.

About 10 years ago, the telcos and the cablecos argued that they needed “franchise reform” to deploy fiber to the home high speed broadband. Anyone offering cable services (which, at the time, were a necessary part of any bundle including broadband — yup, times change) needs to get a franchise. At the time, all franchises were local. They also usually required the franchisee to serve the entire franchise area with same quality service. This requirement to serve the entire service area with the same quality service is called an “anti-redlining” provision. It is designed to ensure that providers of service do not avoid traditionally unserved communities (particularly communities of color), who were on the wrong side of the “red line” drawn by real estate developers to separate the whites only neighborhoods from the “colored” neighborhoods. (For more info, see this clip from Adam Ruins The Suburbs.) While we no longer have laws mandating segregation, the combination of stereotypes about urban neighborhoods dominated by people of color, combined with the unfortunate economic reality that non-whites systemically earn lower incomes than whites often means that providers simply ignore these neighborhoods when they offer services and focus investment on whiter (and wealthier) areas. Anti-redlining laws are designed to prevent that from happening.

 

To return back to the mid-00s, telecos (later joined by cable cos demanding a level playing field) pushed states to reform their franchise laws to (a) replace local franchising with state franchising; and, (b) eliminate most of the requirements of the franchise — including eliminating the anti-redlining provisions. The carriers argued that OF COURSE they intended to provide FTTH everywhere, including communities of color. But if they had to deal with local franchise authorities dictating deployment schedules and demanding all sorts of conditions to get a franchise, then — gosh darn it — they just would not be able to invest in FTTH no matter how much they wanted to do so. Although I and my then employer Media Access Project worked with the handful of local and national orgs fighting repeal of local franchises generally and anti-redlining provisions specifically, we lost bigly.

 

Today, I am once again feeling the Cassandrefreude. As predicted 10 years ago, in the absence of anti-redlining provisions, carriers have not invested in upgrading their broadband capacity in communities of color at anything close to the same rate they have upgraded in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. As a result, the urban digital divide is once again growing. It’s not just that high-speed broadband is ridiculously expensive, although this is also serious barrier to adoption in urban areas. It’s also that in many low-income and predominantly non-white neighborhoods, speeds on par with those offered in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods are not even available.

 

This problem is further compounded by the belief that we have solved the problem of urban deployment and the only places where deployment (as opposed to simply cost of access) remains an issue is in rural America. But while the problems in rural America are very real, we need to recognize that the digital divide problem is actually growing in urban areas as carriers rush to provide gigabit speed in some neighborhoods while leaving other neighborhoods in the digital dust.

 

With the focus on 5G deployment, however, we have a rare opportunity to avoid repeating past mistakes. Just once, just once, we could actually take steps to prevent the inequality before it happens.

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So What The Heck Does 5G Actually Do? And Is It Worth What The Carriers Are Demanding?

It’s become increasingly impossible to talk about spectrum policy without getting into the fight over whether 5G is a miracle technology that will end poverty, war and disease or an evil marketing scam by wireless carriers to extort concessions in exchange for magic beans. Mind you, most people never talk about spectrum policy at all — so they are spared this problem in the first place. But with T-Mobile and Sprint now invoking 5G as a central reason to let them merge, it’s important for people to understand precisely what 5G actually doesUnfortunately, when you ask most people in Policyland what 5G actually does and how it works, the discussion looks a lot like the discussion in Hitchhikers Guide To the Galaxy where Deep Thought announces that the answer to Life the Universe and Everything is “42.”

 

So while not an engineer, I have spent the last two weeks or so doing a deep dive on what, exactly does 5G actually do — with a particular emphasis on the recently released 3GPP standard (Release 15) that everyone is celebrating as the first real industry standard for 5G. My conclusion is that while the Emperor is not naked, that is one Hell of a skimpy thong he’s got on.

 

More precisely, the bunch of different things that people talk about when they say “5G”: millimeter wave spectrum, network slicing, and something called (I am not making this up) “flexible numerology” are real. They represent improvements in existing wireless technology that will enhance overall efficiency and thus add capacity to the network (and also reduce latency). But, as a number of the more serious commentators (such as Dave Burstien over here) have pointed out, we can already do these things using existing LTE (plain old 4G). Given the timetable for development and deployment of new 5G network technology, it will be at least 5 years before we see more than incremental improvement in function and performance.

 

Put another way, it would be like calling the adoption of a new version of Wi-Fi “5G Wi-Fi.” (Which I am totally going to do from now on, btw, because why not?)

 

I elaborate more below . . .

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