Will 5G connectivity be the solution for rural areas?

It is hard to watch television and not see a commercial promoting 5G connectivity these days, but will it live up to all the hype in rural areas or are we in for a letdown? Ariel Wiegard, federal government relations lead at Syngenta, spoke recently at Commodity Classic about 5G’s possibilities and shortcomings for rural America.

“Digital is fast becoming a farm game-changer, but you can’t have digital without the internet and the future of internet is 5G,” Wiegard said. “Still about 35 million people in the U.S. don’t have any internet, and 19 million of those are in rural America and our farming communities. One estimate says it will take over a trillion dollars just to finish laying our 4G wireless to rural America.”

There is still a lot work to be done to bring all of rural America online, but the 5G progress is making headway, mainly in urban areas. Wiegard explained 5G connectivity as fifth generation wireless technology. Generally, the United States is running on 4G connectivity right now, but 5G promises much faster speeds. Some estimates indicate 5G will be 100 times faster than 4G.

“5G is kind of the sexy, hot topic right now, but it might not be all that it’s cracked up to be,” she explained.

Wiegard further described 5G as a planned, superfast network, capable of transmitting massive amounts of data via small-celled transmitters. These transmitters are about the size of a pizza box. They are much easier to install than traditional cell phone towers, but they do not transmit very far, making them perfect for urban places with a large number of people in a small area. In fact, one transmitter only covers about 500 feet.

“If you consider the size of some farms, it would be hard to reach the back forty, think about how many of these pizza boxes you are going to need to get service out to your tractor or combine,” Wiegard said.

For this reason, the task of expanding 4G networks in rural areas to 5G will be an extremely difficult task.

5G will not happen overnight, and it might be as fast as promised

“We don’t know what is going to happen with 5G but there are tons of possibilities,” Wiegard said. “Right now we’re sort of in 4G for farming, but we want to get to 5G to this really powerful network in the next few years.”

Unfortunately, building 5G networks is really expensive.

“One estimate I saw said it’s going to cost $130 to $150 billion dollars over five years, just to install the cables that will enable 5G wireless,” Wiegard said.

Wiegard says telecommunication companies are making big investments in this endeavor, but they are focused on cities. She says rural American does not have the population density for these companies to want to make connectivity investments where people are sparse. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and CoBank come in to help fund those loans.

Jeff Johnston, lead economist at CoBank, a $140 billion cooperative bank that provides loans and financial services to rural America, says people needs to have reasonable expectations for 5G when it eventually makes it to less population communities.

“In theory 5G could solve the connectivity problems in rural America, but when you look at the financial, technical and operational challenges of deploying truly high-speed 5G networks in rural America, we need to have tempered expectations,” he said.

Additionally, Johnston said not all 5G networks are the same. He says this has to do with the kind of spectrum the operator is using to build out 5G coverage. A spectrum is the air interface radio technology that is used to transmit a signal from your cell phone to a cell tower. There are three different spectrums: low-band, mid-band and high-band.

“There are big differences between 5G networks that will be built in rural America and 5G in urban areas,” he said.

The 5G everyone is raving about in large cities will be built using high-band spectrum because of how many people can utilize the connection in such a small space. Low-band spectrum will be used in rural areas because high-band would never be able to travel far enough to justify it. Johnston says using low-band may only make internet speeds 20% faster, so rural areas should not expect a major difference when 5G is installed someday.

“It won’t be until we have mid and high-band spectrums that we will really see these 1 gig-type speeds,” he said.

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Chad Rupe, administrator for Rural Utilities Service within the USDA, says although 5G is the future, the government is working mostly to bring the entire country online for the time being.

“We’ve focused our efforts in getting the unserved areas served,” Rupe said. “What that means is we’re putting our dollars in once and doing it right, rather than having to reinvest every two to three years in an area.”

Rupe says this means working with federal partners, state and local governments to do bring internet to people who do not have access to it. However, he says there is no amount of federal dollars on its own that will solve the rural broadband issue, and it is going to take every body to help move the ball forward.

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or [email protected].