Rural Areas May Be Left Behind With 5G


Don’t expect to be enjoying the blazing speeds provided by the 5G millimeter (mm) wave band at your family farm or remote mountain cabin any time soon – or possibly ever. In an interview this week, a Verizon official confirmed that the highest frequency (and thus the fastest) 5G spectrum band was never intended to be deployed everywhere.

Photo Credit: & Natasha Turner

5G will make use of several frequency bands for various purposes, all of which have higher frequencies and faster speeds than any previous generation of mobile networks. But the real star of the show for 5G is the extremely high frequency (EHF) band which features wavelengths down in the millimeter range. The bandwidth and transmission rates afforded by these high-frequency signals will revolutionize wireless and mobile communication where it is available, but the areas that can realistically see the biggest benefits will be limited for the forseeable future.

The 5G Tradeoff

The quantum leap in speed, the low latency, and the vast bandwidth provided by 5G technology is made possible – in part – by the fact that its high-frequency carrier waves can deliver huge amounts of digital information with each transmission. These high frequencies, however, come with two critical downsides: they have a short transmission range and they have difficulty traversing physical barriers. These deficiencies are even more pronounced at the highest (mm wave) frequency bands of 5G.

The limited range and penetration of 5G frequencies requires the use of beamforming to help direct signals to their targets, but they also mean that more antennas – more closely spaced – are required to provide 5G coverage in a given area.

Urban vs. Rural Deployment

The high concentration of antennas needed means that the rollout of the 5G network will, at least initially, be concentrated in the areas with the highest demand for 5G services. The more powerful mm wave band of the network will thus be limited to dense urban areas where it can be used for many of the municipal, industrial, and medical applications for which it is expected to provide the greatest benefit. Indeed, deployment of 5G in 2019 has been exclusive to major cities – and only so in small portions of those cities. Millimeter wave deployment has been even further restricted, with only a few urban neighborhoods in current use. More rollouts are planned for the remainder of 2019 and into 2020, but all in major US metropolitan areas.

None of this means that suburbs, small towns, and rural areas will be completely left out of the 5G experience. The network will gradually expand to those regions to some extent. In more remote and rural areas, however, carriers will concentrate on getting the most out of the lower-frequency 5G bands – which will be piggy-backed onto the existing 4G and LTE infrastructure and used in conjunction with those technologies – rather than trying to build a dense mm wave network among sparse populations.

It’s unlikely, barring any other technological developments, that the most advanced aspects of 5G will make their way into rural homes in the near future.

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