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5G could widen the gap between haves and have-nots

The next generation of wireless technology could bring many new benefits, but they won’t be coming to everyone.

War And Poverty Fuel Conflict In Central African Republic

The digital divide follows traditional patterns of inequality.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When it comes to 5G, the possibilities are the stuff science fiction dreams are made of. We picture our lives inside our seamlessly connected smart homes, with autonomous cars to take us to work and the speediest, most reliable internet connectivity ensuring that our streaming video never buffers.

After all, 5G has been hailed as the advent of the fourth industrial revolution. Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf called it the biggest thing since electricity.

That's great for people living in societies that will have access to 5G technologies, but what about those that don't?

For all the hype and potential benefits that stem from 5G, there are few parts of the world that will actually see deployments in the next few years. Other countries are still moving to 4G, or even struggling to offer any level of internet connectivity. The Alliance for Affordable Internet's (A4AI) 2017 affordability report found that only 19 countries can say they have affordable internet. Overall, the digital divide between rich and poor was found only to be widening. A new set of advantages for the connected only look set to leave the unconnected even further behind.

"5G has great potential," Sonia Jorge, executive director of A4AI, said in an interview earlier this month. "It is fantastic. But in the markets where we work, it's a very small opportunity still."

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If the discussions taking place at the Mobile World Congress trade show in February were any indication, the focus was wasn't on the unconnected but rather on bringing better and more sophisticated services and products to those already connected. After all, a lot of the buzz focused on operators like T-Mobile and Sprint in the US bringing 5G to multiple cities as soon as this year.

There was less attention paid to connecting people everywhere else.

Affordable internet needs affordable devices

5G networks will enable phone manufacturers to make connected devices smarter and more capable than ever. But the lack of connectivity isn't the only thing preventing people from owning such a device.

Many people around the world remain priced out of owning a smartphone, and network speeds won't magically lower the price tag. "5G comes with a need for very smart devices and smart phones which are not exactly at the price point yet where people who are poor can afford and that's the economic reality," Jorge said.

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Nokia remains a popular brand in the feature phone market.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Building 5G networks in Africa won't change the fact that feature phones were still the fastest-growing phone category across the continent last year. In fact, smartphones have been losing market share to feature phones, according to analyst firm IDC.

"One common misconception has been that advancing ICTs (information and communications technologies) is just a matter of the technical infrastructure, the build-it-and-they-will-connect approach," Nanjira Sambuli, digital equality advocacy manager for the Web Foundation, wrote in an article for the Institute for Public Policy Research last month.

It takes much more than building 5G networks to level the playing field, starting with an appreciation that the digital divide follows traditional patterns of inequality. Even when people get online, their experience and access to the internet can vary vastly depending on their level of wealth.

"The big risk is that if we continue down this problematic path, we could end up with a 'splinternet' -- one's ability to experience the internet's full benefits becoming a function of how rich or poor they are," Sambuli said.

The uphill fight

Avoiding a "splinternet" reality will take collaboration between governments and industry.

"It comes down to the political will/leadership," Sambuli said over email. Institutions, bodies and private companies will need work together to "assess how they can support the unconnected, bearing in mind that the reasons they remain offline are strongly linked to existing 'offline' inequalities," she added.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, in his MWC keynote, homed in on the transformative potential of connectivity to alleviate poverty. Kim didn't mention 5G specifically, instead relying on examples including the use of big data and the trend of connected devices known as internet of things in health care. Both of these areas will stand to get a boost from 5G.

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President of World Bank Group Jim Yong Kim speaks at MWC.

Lluis Gene / AFP/Getty Images

"You -- mobile operators -- can and must play a critical role in achieving those goals," he told an audience of industry folks. "I believe that if we work together, we can tackle the biggest global challenges of our lifetime such as poverty, inequality, pandemics, famine, and climate change."

The wireless industry does see the potential benefits that 5G can bring to different societies, from digital health care to how money can more efficiently flow electronically, according to Verizon Chief Technology Officer Hans Vestberg.

"The industry realizes the tech we're rolling out can make the world a better place," he said in an interview last month. But he also recognizes these benefits will be seen in the long term, whereas in the short term there's likely to be a disparity in 5G deployment.

This will mean few seeing the benefits of 5G at the beginning, with more people getting access to the next-generation tech over time. Because 5G is based on a global standard that everyone can agree upon, the cost to upgrade will be lower over time as more countries and companies embrace the technology. Early adopters like the US, South Korea, Japan and China will drive down the costs.

"This will enable more societies to jump on," he said in an interview last month. "Even more people can have a connected device."

While Jorge sees the potential for 5G costs to come down, there's still a long way to go. After all, the price of a 5G device and service has to realistically be cheaper than 3G for anyone to use the service.

"The possibilities of great exclusion are very real and we're already seeing them," she said.

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