5G hype won't close the digital divide

As the telecom industry crows about the life-changing aspects of 5G, some urban and rural communities are still waiting to get broadband access of any kind.

Dhara Singh CNET News Intern
Dhara Singh is one of CNET's summer interns and a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She loves digging deep into the social issues that arise from everyday technology. Aside from wording around, you can catch her discussing Game of Thrones or on a random New York City adventure with her dSLR.
Dhara Singh
10 min read

More than half of Brownsville residents say that they rely on public Wi-Fi because it is "free or cheaper to use" than other connectivity options.

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Twelve miles from the hustle and bustle of Times Square lies the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, a part of New York few tourists ever see. Gone are the flashing lights and high-tech billboards of the "crossroads of the world." Instead, there's a two-story sleek building that stands in stark contrast to the bare, industrial streets surrounding it. 

It's in this district building that New York Councilwoman Alicka Amprey-Samuel says she's been experiencing issues with her Altice Optimum internet service for the past four years. When it rains, she says the service stops. Her complaints to the internet service provider haven't changed the status quo. 

"When the city or the country is having a conversation about the next best thing, [our] conversation is always how can we get something that's even half-way decent," she said. "My people don't even have the same grocery stores that other people have."

Amprey-Samuel's isn't the only one suffering connection woes across the greater Brownsville and Ocean Hill communities she represents. In Brownsville alone, 56% of residents say they rely on public Wi-Fi because it's "free or cheaper to use" than other connectivity options, according to a recent report by Brooklyn Public Library. Even if they have broadband, like Ampry-Samuel, the service is often spotty. 

The hype about 5G -- the next generation of mobile technology, which promises high speeds up to 100 times faster than current 4G tech -- masks the reality that millions of Americans are still waiting for adequate broadband access of any kind. If residents can't afford their internet service, chances are that buying a Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G phone for $1,099 isn't on their to-do list. 

Nearly a third of US households, or about 100 million people, lack a broadband internet connection of at least 25 megabits per second, according to market research firm NPD. Rural households especially are on the losing side of the digital divide  -- about one in five rural households don't have a broadband connection. It's an issue that's been taken up by Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who last week called for an $85 billion rural broadband program

But it's not just a rural problem, as Amprey-Samuel knows. She lives in Brooklyn, the most populated part of America's biggest city. Even there, a reliable internet connection can be rare. 

From New York to Chicago, whole communities risk being left behind if their low-income populations lack adequate internet access. The absence of in-home internet connections can lead to unemployment and homelessness for adults who can't apply for jobs online or tap into the new tech economy. For children, it's the erosion of a competitive edge against their peers if they can't access educational resources -- or turn in daily homework assignments. As the economy moves toward high-tech jobs, a limited cellphone data plan just doesn't cut it.

Cities can help

In Chicago, one of the first cities in the world to get 5G, there are entire neighborhoods where nearly half of the residents still lack an internet subscription. While Sprint boasts consistent 5G speeds of 150 megabits per second and Verizon can surpass 1 gigabits per second, according to CNET's speed test in Chicago, 56% of West Englewood residents still lack household internet access. 

That's where community groups like Chicktech Chicago come in. The local nonprofit, which primarily serves to expose female students to STEM through workshops, lets them stay after hours to complete their homework assignments. 


For the past four years New York Councilwoman Alicka Amprey-Samuel says she has been experiencing issues with her Altice Optimum internet service.

Dhara Singh/CNET

"There have been several times where workshops have ended..I sit down with several students so they can do their homework at the workshops," said Nicole Frapolly, founder of the chapter.  "Especially in Chicago [internet access] must be a basic human right because so much of their homework is done online."

Frapolly believes a partnership with Chicago would allow her to extend her efforts to more schools.

A spokesman for the city didn't respond to a request for comment. 

Even in areas where city councils are responsive to concerns about equitable internet access, like in Brooklyn, conversations with providers are a work in progress. 

"There have been discussions around [a] low-cost [internet] plan, but it wasn't necessarily low cost...instead more incentives to sign up with [one-time] discounts," Ampry-Samuel said in an interview. 

Amprey-Samuel has talked to Altice and the New York mayor's office about the need for reliable, inexpensive broadband in her district. But she says nothing has come from those conversations. She's not optimistic about 5G rolling out in her area -- or home broadband connections improving anytime soon. When Verizon started installing high speed FIOS in New York in 2008, it skipped her district. The city sued Verizon in 2015 for failing to deploy fiber to the city's 3.1 million households despite its promise to do so, and the case is ongoing. 

"Today we don't even have the [basic] connection so why are we even talking about the next level of connectivity?"' Ampry-Samuel said. 

Verizon declined to comment on the litigation. 

Altice said it already offers a low-cost service, called Altice Advantage Internet service, anywhere in Brooklyn with speeds of 30 megabits per second speed and a monthly price of $14.99. However, to enroll in its discounted program, households need to participate in the National School Lunch Program, attend a New York City Public School, receive Supplemental Security Income or fulfill other listed requirements. 

The federal government's role

It's not just up to the New York city government and carriers to enable highinternet speeds. One of the biggest problems with making sure every part of the country has broadband is that the national maps used to track access are faulty, experts say. 

Greta Byrum, co-director of the digital equity laboratory at the New School in New York, says previous misleading data on the FCC's broadband map contributes to the digital divide in New York. 

"Data that [the FCC] collects from the broadband providers are aggregated to Census tracts" Byrum said. "It's so self reported and there's no testing and enforcement from the providers."

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Byrum is referring to Form 477 data, which internet service providers must report twice a year to th FCC. The form describes an ISP's coverage and advertised speeds across the US, but the FCC doesn't verify the accuracy of that data. Additionally, if a single census block, usually around 4,000 residents, has only one home that can access broadband service, then the whole area is considered covered.

In response to public complaints, the FCC has pledged to improve its broadband map to show whether buildings using the same network technology boast different speeds. To bridge the digital divide, it announced a two-phase reverse auction for companies to target "unserved locations" in census blocks. Additionally, it will create a crowd-sourcing portal that will "gather input from consumers as well as from state, local and Tribal governments," once the Office of Economics and Analytics issues a notice. 

Neither the New York City Chief Technology Officer nor the FCC responded to a request for comment. 

Cheaper isn't equitable

While 95% of Chicago homescan get online, according to the city's latest Technology Access and Adoption Study, low-income residents in the city are "five times more likely not to have internet access."

Karen Mossenberger, professor at the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University -- who conducted research on Chicago's Smart Cities -- the city's program to close the digital divide, says an absence of digital literacy, coupled with already existing unpaid bills in a low-income household, makes it difficult to take advantage of cheaper broadband.

"If households qualify for broadband…[but] if they owe bills which a lot of low-income households do -- they won't be eligible," said Mossenberger, referring to programs such as Comcast Internet Essentials, which promises a monthly fee of $9.95. 

Slow speeds also contribute to the inequity. Discounted programs often offer speeds that fall well below the 25 megabits per second threshold. In Seattle, both Comcast Internet Essentials and Simply Internet by Waves boast prices below $10 a month, however they only offer speeds at 15 megabits per second and 10 megabits per second, respectively. Additionally, Internet Essentials users only get access to the Xfinity public Wi-Fi network for 40 hours per week, while full paying customers get unlimited access. 

"That's the long-term problem -- that [speed] is fine for someone to do homework and basic needs, but it's not digitally equitable if someone doesn't have the same access as...everybody else," said Alice Lawson, broadband and cable program manager for Seattle. Residents need at least need at least 25 Mbps internet speed to stream videos in HDR, download large files or participate in cloud sharing efficiently.

The absence of fast internet service isn't the sole factor limiting broadband coverage. In Seattle, the city partners with carriers to make affordable broadband options, but low-income residents sometimes aren't aware of the programs. 

"When people do not speak the language, they might not get information about the affordable internet programs, and they might not be able to compare plans and prices...or [address] technical issues," said Karie Wong, coordinator at the Chinese Information Service Center, who works with Seattle to help immigrants from Vietnam to even Russia gain internet access.

Comcast spokeswoman Trinity Thorpe-Lubneuski said its Internet Essentials already offers marketing materials in different languages and call centers can handle 240 different languages.

Who is 5G reaching now?

While leading mobile carriers such as Verizon and T-Mobile aren't shying from the in-home broadband space, their 5G in-home service is still in its early stages. For low-income Americans, access anytime soon may be a far stretch in their imagination. 

Verizon, the largest carrier by customers, has home 5G service in select areas in Sacramento, Los Angeles, Houston and Indianapolis. When asked about 5G prospects for low-income communities in cities such as New York, Kevin King, a spokesman for Verizon, doesn't rule it out. 

"The goal of 5G is we're building it as kind of a process -- our goal is having a nationwide 5G network," he said. 


Neither libraries nor next-gen phones can replace the need for in-home broadband.

Dhara Singh/CNET

Competitor T-Mobile, after receiving Justice Department approval to merge with Sprint last month, aims to cover more than half of US households with 5G broadband service in excess of 100 megabits per second by 2024. It's also committed to launching a home 5G broadband service, although it's light on details.

As for underserved areas, this March it only mentioned launching a limited LTE home internet service and hopes to connect 50,000 homes by the end of this year. Sprint, however currently has 5G "smart hubs" with HTC that for a monthly price of $60 per month gives users up to 100GB of data. Users can connect up to 20 devices over WiFi.

"We also established milestones to cover 85% of rural America with 5G on low-band spectrum in three years and 90% in six years," T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in an earlier press release

While Verizon and T-Mobile take their time spreading in-home 5G broadband, smaller players such as Atlas Networks have tried to take the reigns for spreading in-home broadband. Atlas, which is local to Seattle, has tried to reach low-income populations through negotiations with the city. 

"Atlas networks is a wonderful company because they are interested in having affordability and we've been working with them to [team] them up with affordable housing," Lawson said. 

However, when the attention turns on major 5G mobile carriers, Lawson says the city simply doesn't have leverage to ensure carriers such as Verizon and T-Mobile disperse small cells that capture 5G signals all throughout the city, especially with the FCC mandating a shorter period of time to review the deployment of small cells. 

"When the control and ability to collect fees is taken away from local communities, then there is less of an ability for us to collect fees to put back into public benefits for low income communities," says David Keyes, Seattle's digital equity program manager.

Hanging on legislative threads

Clayton Banks, co-founder of Silicon Harlem, a company that aims to make the group's namesake upper Manhattan neighborhood a technology hub, remains optimistic about bridging the digital divide. 

He has reason. Silicon Harlem brokered a deal for Spectrum -- the cable and internet arm of Charter Communications -- to provide internet service in some residential buildings in Harlem for $40 a month, discounted from the standard $150 rate.


Less than a mile from Amprey-Samuel's office, a bright magenta-pink T-Mobile billboard states in bold font, "Nobody connects more New Yorkers."

Dhara Singh/CNET

"We are in a crisis," Banks said. "It's a crisis we can solve." 

Both Banks and Keyes have faith in the Digital Equity Act of 2019, which was introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington). The act will establish two grant programs administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to spur efforts for more digital equity. 

Even presidential candidates such as Warren have recently announced their own plans for increasing broadband coverage to unserved area. Not only has she promised $85 million in federal funding for "fiber structure necessary to bring high-speed broadband," but she also wants to allow local communities to build their own broadband networks. Twenty six states currenly prohibit city-owned networks. 

"This ends when I'm president," Warren wrote last week in a Medium blog post. "I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford. That means publicly owned and operated networks -- and no giant ISPs running away with taxpayer dollars." 

This optimism, however strong, may take time before it trickles down to Amprey-Samuel and her district.  Less than a mile from her office, wherecommuters step off the L at Atlantic Avenue Station, a bright magenta-pink T-Mobile billboard states in bold font, "Nobody connects more New Yorkers."

While mobile hotspots with capped data can serve as temporary solutions for families wishing to connect to the internet and 5G makes its mark across America, neither libraries nor next-gen phones can replace in-home broadband. For Alicka Amprey-Samuel's district issues such as the availability of grocery stores take precedence over next generation technology.