Covid-19 Exposes Connectivity Gap, and Need for 5G to Close It

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Each day of quarantine, I, like so many of you, spend hours participating in remote video meetings, webinars and family gatherings. It’s my lifeline to the outside world (and tragically, it was the only way to pay my last respects to a victim of Covid-19 via a “Zoom funeral”).  

The irony in inescapable: stuck in a state of physical disconnectedness, just as we are at the dawn of a new era in mobile connectivity. Ironic, certainly. But fortuitous as well.   

Imagine for a moment what life during the pandemic would be like without high-speed connectivity. How many more people would be jobless? Imagine the unprecedented setback dealt to our children’s schooling. Think about the role telemedicine now plays and what a lack of broadband would mean for health authorities tracking and fighting the contagion.   

For many Americans, this is their reality.  

More than a third of Americans living in rural regions lack high-speed internet, and large parts of urban America are equally disconnected. The Federal Communications Commission says nearly 30 million Americans lack access to broadband, cutting them off from economic opportunity, education and civic engagement. The decision by California State University – the country’s largest four-year public university system – to offer only online instruction this fall is surely not the last of its kind, and starkly illustrates how far behind our students and future workforce will fall without connectivity.  

While it is true that even before the health crisis, government and private industry were working to close this digital divide -- to bridge the so-called last-mile gap between fiber optic networks and homes, schools, libraries, factories and offices -- progress was slow.  

But as is so often the case, history can be a guide. We have faced such problems before. During the Great Depression, access to electricity was scarce, especially in rural regions. So government stimulus efforts included hydropower projects aimed at creating jobs while providing access to the electric grid. This investment bridged that technology gap and paid rural states economic dividends long after the Depression ended.

Broadband connectivity is the 21st century parallel.

As policy makers explore ways to stimulate the U.S. economy and fuel an eventual recovery, any new package of stimulus measures must include initiatives that help close the gap between the broadband technology haves and the have-nots.

One solution with tremendous promise was already underway before the pandemic: the use of millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum – a previously unusable cellular frequency band now made viable as part of 5G – to span that last-mile gap and connect remote households and businesses through the deployment of relatively inexpensive small cells instead of traditional fiber connections.

Another is development of virtual, or disaggregated, radio networks (also called Open-RAN) that use interoperable, software-centric equipment instead of the proprietary infrastructure currently in use. This would take advantage of U.S. technological leadership and bring additional suppliers and competition to the global infrastructure-equipment market without hurting trusted network providers.

Work on and deployment of these critical technologies must be accelerated, and Congress can help by including in any new stimulus package:

-- grants to support development and deployment of secure Open-RAN networks and a Department of Defense Open-RAN pilot program.

-- additional funding for the FCC’s E-rate program and Rural Health Care Program, with aid specifically targeting the use of mmWave spectrum to connect students outside of school. 

-- funding incentives that accelerate the deployment of broadband, particularly in rural regions.

An investment in connecting all Americans will benefit all of us. When Qualcomm’s engineers helped create the mobile internet amid our pioneering work on communications technology, we learned that once you put the technological capability in people’s hands, they will be creative and entrepreneurial in ways previously unimagined. It is helpful to keep this in mind as we adjust to a new normal that will likely see a lot more distance learning, remote work and telemedicine, even after it is safe to go out again.

What the Covid-19 crisis has also shown us is that reliable connectivity fosters resilience – medically, economically, educationally, and at the human level for our family and social lives. If broadband connectivity was seen as a luxury before, we now know how vitally most of the country depends on it, and how isolated social distancing leaves those without it.

Don Rosenberg is general counsel and executive vice president of Qualcomm.

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