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Launch of 5G connects and disconnects communities

U.Va. professors Christopher Ali and Cong Shen discuss the implications of 5G and its role in the digital divide

<p>The fifth-generation network, or 5G, is a wireless platform that increases connection speeds and uses a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum.</p>

The fifth-generation network, or 5G, is a wireless platform that increases connection speeds and uses a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Although the launch of fifth-generation technology by major networks has led to faster speeds for users and increases the efficiency of larger machines and platforms, this upgrade has only been rolled out in large cities. Many communities in America including Charlottesville do not have access to this feature, and may not gain access in the near future, further contributing to the digital divide. This divide refers to unequal access to forms of technology and communication among marginalized communities. 

Cong Shen, assistant electrical and computer engineering professor at the School of Engineering, along with his research group are working to optimize communication and energy efficiency of 5G and future generations. Additionally, Assoc. Media Studies Prof. Christopher Ali analyzes the implications of this technology for rural populations in the United States. 

The fifth-generation network, or 5G, is a wireless platform that increases connection speeds and uses a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Third parties and industry partners developed this technology around 2014-2015, and the first commercial rollout followed in 2019. 

“We are talking about a wireless system that would be able to for instance bring high-speed wireless into your house at speeds that are probably ten to a hundred times more than what you are getting right now,” said Ali. “This uses a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which can transfer a greater amount of data, a greater amount of bandwidth.”

5G speeds are 10 to 100 times faster than their current rates. These advancements are due to the use of a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum which can transfer a greater bandwidth. 

The architecture of 5G distinguishes it from previous generations. Ali mentioned the use of massive towers to transfer strong signals across dozens of miles in 4G network. However, he stated that 5G replaces the use of towers with wireless small cells every 500 feet. Small cells or signal retransmission tools are close in size to picnic coolers and are mounted to buildings, street lights, and other structures. They improve transfer speeds and coverage especially in densely populated areas such as cities. 

According to Shen, 5G also reduces latency delays. Latency refers to the time between transmitting and receiving a signal. It was prominent in 4G and 3G but has been drastically reduced to a single digit millisecond in the 5G model. 

5G is distinguished from other generations of connectivity because of its design for home assistant devices and larger machines such as automated work in factories. Ali mentioned that replacing wired connection with 5G can be beneficial for gadgets that require constant data streaming, such as autonomous vehicles. Furthermore, Shen said that 5G could lead to major innovations in rescue missions following natural disasters. 

“If you have an earthquake or natural disaster like a tsunami when the infrastructure of a 4G is down, 5G has a mode where if someone else’s device is still working they can talk peer-to-peer and form an ad hoc network so that people can exchange information,” Shen said.  

According to Engineering graduate student Chengshuai Shi, 5G is predicted to bring novel changes to other forms of technology including virtual reality and augmented reality. Ultimately, machinery requiring large data transmission will benefit the most from its design. 

“Generally speaking, it may form a new way for us to interact with each other and the world, just like 4G and 3G have already changed the ways that we communicate and entertain,” Shi wrote. “However, it will also take a long way and [will require] developments in other fields for us to get there.” 

According to Shen, the United States, China, South Korea and other Europen countries have adopted the use of 5G. The initial rollout of the new generation began among wealthy urban populations. The high population density of cities such as San Francisco and New York City makes the use and optimization of 5G economically favorable. 

One of the major challenges regarding the launch of 5G has been reaching rural communities in America. Ali’s research focuses on the promises of large companies to reach these populations. He mentioned that parties such as T-Mobile and Sprint have promised to bring 5G to these regions. Their model is designed to transmit signals further through the use of frequencies with low bandwidth. However, this results in speeds equivalent to 4G networks. 

Ali also stated that the population sizes of these communities make the addition of small cells every 500 feet for 5G connection very problematic. Ultimately, it contributes to the absence of 5G in rural areas.  

“There is no way this is going to work in rural America,” Ali said. “There are just not enough people, and the communities are way too sparsely populated. 5G is a myth for rural America. It is decades away.” 

Ali and Shen project that 5G will take some time before coming to Charlottesville. Ali believes that economic disadvantages decrease the likelihood of bringing 5G to the area. In fact, he anticipates that it will take 5 to 10 years before companies such as AT&T place signal repeaters around the city. On the other hand, Shen anticipates that 5G may come to Charlottesville by 2020. He mentioned that companies will have to overcome difficulties associated with the geographical terrain of Charlottesville. 

“The Charlottesville area, in general, is very difficult to wire because of all the surrounding hills and environments,” Shen said. “It is a challenging situation for wireless and that requires a lot of effort from operators.”

Although 5G has increased speeds and connectivity of larger machines, there are many aspects of the technology that must be altered. Shen mentioned that the new model is not environmentally friendly. Each 5G base station consumes at least five times more energy than 4G. One of his primary research topics includes reducing power consumption associated with 5G. He also focuses on introducing machine learning and artificial intelligence into future generations. 

Ali also expressed 5G’s need for a fiber-optic backhaul. Furthermore, he believes rural areas can achieve better connection through wired technology. He fears that communities will solely focus on bringing 5G to their district instead of implementing fiber-optic technology to bring high-speed internet and connection. Additionally, he suggests that organizations search for other ways to reduce discrepancies in technology access. 

“We have to remember that America is poorly connected even without 5G, so it’s not like 5G is going to magically solve the digital divide,” Ali said. “I would love to see more of our efforts being put into connecting rural America, tribal America, low-income America and minority America.”