5G will widen city and rural digital divide: tech consultants

Image shows a sign showing an exhibition booth with the words "5G Infrastructure".

The fifth generation of mobile technology, which works alongside 4G infrastructure, will take a decade to deploy and its challenges for carriers will mean a bigger digital divide between city and rural communities, technology consultants have said.

Given previous experiences, it’s unlikely Australia’s telecommunications companies will agree to share fixtures as they roll out 5G small cells and towers, they added.

“Sharing infrastructure [such as towers and power poles] would help but by no means solve this problem,” Geof Heydon of Astrolabe Group told ALGA News.

“The business case for 5G is challenged and the carriers will probably struggle to afford widespread 5G. There is little new revenue from 5G.”

While technically sharing 5G small cells was easy to do, at this stage this seems unlikely, Mr Heydon said.

“This means that if we get three carriers deploying very small cells in city areas, then we will see very large numbers of small cells.

“Most of these will also require a fibre [backbone] to connect to.

“The business case for small cells will be limited to very dense population areas – CBD only.

“A bigger digital divide than we have today will emerge.”

Mr Heydon is working with several city councils to see if small cells could be concentrated.

“They are pushing carriers to design antennae’s that blend into the environment,” he said.

“They also want sharing to happen and are pushing that too.”

ALGA has also been advocating similar views from councils and has conveyed this directly to the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association and Telstra representatives.

Mr Heydon, who with colleague Nam Nguyen of Infyra outlined the impact on 5G on network infrastructure for Infrastructure Magazine, said governments had a role to play in the new technology, but were not yet focusing on “all the right issues” such as infrastructure sharing and reducing the digital divide.

“5G will not provide all the answers for the Internet of Things [in which tens of billions of devices and sensors are connected], despite the carrier rhetoric,” Mr Heydon said.

Because 5G radio signals use a lower radio frequency range than 4G, they don’t travel as far and will need additional infrastructure to deliver the same coverage at higher bandwidth speeds and latency, the consultants’ Infrastructure article said.

This will include more mobile towers with new antennae, lots of small cells for density coverage, and in-building coverage because it will be difficult for signals to penetrate buildings. Rain and trees also hinder 5G signals, Mr Heydon added.

“Despite early network deployment from operators in Australia, it will be a while before 5G becomes widely available, due to network infrastructure requirements,” the consultants wrote.

“For regional Australia, it would take even longer as operators would target high population density areas first.

“Any talk of 5G for agriculture will be unrealistic in the short term.”

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that radio waves from 5G technology has short or long-term health effects, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) said.

“This network currently runs on radio waves similar to those used in the current 4G network, and in the future will use radio waves with higher frequencies,” said the Commonwealth agency, which monitors the effects of radiation on humans and the wider environment.

“It is important to note that higher frequencies does not mean higher or more intense exposure.” A Federal Parliamentary committee is inquiring into  the rollout, adoption and application of 5G mobile technology and seeks submissions by 1 November.

Image: An exhibition booth at the 2016 Mobile World Congress. Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns/ Flickr.