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Why 5G fixed wireless access is integral to bridging the digital divide

5G can help close the digital divide.

Digital divide ... Roughly 37% of the world’s population has no internet access and many more have poor connectivity. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Angela Baker
Chief Sustainability Officer, Qualcomm
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Society and Equity

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Roughly 37% of the world’s population has no internet access and millions more have poor connectivity.
  • High-speed broadband access improves opportunities for people in education, health and finance.
  • The next frontier is 5G Fixed Wireless Access which can help close the digital divide by providing cheaper and faster connectivity.

Our future is an intelligently connected world where everyone has access to education, healthcare, entertainment, work, and much more through smart connected devices. According to World Economic Forum data, more than 60% of global GDP in 2022 is expected to depend on digital technologies. Yet, 37% of the world population, close to 3 billion people, remain offline and many others only have access to unreliable internet connections.

It is time we created awareness of the issues and more importantly, the advanced yet affordable solutions available to solve them. For instance, 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) provides the perfect opportunity for public-private collaboration on global digital literacy goals and programmes.

Participation in the digital world

The pandemic highlighted the need for wireless connectivity to build a more resilient society across the world, and as we’ve seen with the rise of hybrid work, we are moving toward a cloud-first mobile environment. As digitization accelerates and more and more opportunities are available online, and often only online, the consequences of the digital divide on the unconnected and the under-connected are magnified.

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Individuals without access to the internet are cut off from society, information, and opportunities. And it’s a global problem, even in developed countries. Untapped social and environmental opportunities within the reach of 5G include expanding access to education, improving financial inclusion, accelerating the adoption of sustainable technologies, and increasing telecommute options.

Providing everyone – regardless of where they live, their income, race, ethnicity, or any other socio-economic characteristics – with reliable fixed or mobile internet connectivity is a major first step in providing access to opportunities and services that disadvantaged and marginalized populations lack. Reducing the digital divide would result in a 2.5% increase in GDP per capita in 2032, with the largest gains in emerging and developing countries and an increase of approximately $3.3 trillion of world GDP in 2032.

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EDISON Alliance: What is the Forum doing to close the digital gap?

5G technology is narrowing the digital divide

It is essential to recognize the role of 5G technologies in closing the digital divide and support their deployment and adoption. Mobile broadband with 3G, 4G, and now 5G has already broadened connectivity coverage and affordability, especially in developing and emerging countries, but fixed broadband is lagging. Homes, schools, and small businesses still lack access to quality internet due to availability, affordability, insufficient digital skills, among other reasons. Since it’s too expensive and difficult to deploy fibre in many unserved areas, operators haven’t focused on it.

With 5G FWA, we now have an additional powerful solution to connect homes, schools, and small- and medium-sized businesses everywhere while broadening the benefits of an intelligently connected world. Designed to be the technology that will connect everything to the cloud, 5G opens up a universe of possibilities. And 5G FWA can deliver the same connection quality as fibre thanks to enhanced capabilities, such as millimeter-wave (mmWave).

Referring to the higher range of radio frequencies above about 24 GHz, 5G mmWave allows us to experience 5G’s full potential by enabling extreme capacity, ultra-high throughput, and ultra-low latency. Operators can increase the network capacity needed to meet the growing demand for data in dense urban centres, homes, and small businesses as well as enterprise environments. Additionally, FWA is faster to deploy than fibre to the home as it avoids right-of-way permitting and other regulatory constraints as well as public work. It is also up to 80% more cost effective to deploy than fibre to the home.

Reducing the digital divide: Impact of fully deployed 5G FWA in the next 10 years by main regions. Source. Qualcomm.
Reducing the digital divide: Impact of fully deployed 5G FWA in the next 10 years by main regions. Image: Qualcomm

As of June 2022, 5G FWA has been launched in 45 countries or territories by 85 operators, and it is planned, in test, or in soft-launch phases, with 41 additional operators including in 20 additional countries or territories. Within the decade, 850 million people around the world could have home internet access for the first time, if 5G FWA was fully deployed.

The power of public-private collaboration

In line with the goals of the EDISON Alliance, 5G FWA provides the perfect opportunity for public-private collaboration on global digital literacy goals and programmes, including education, finance, and health. Implementing digital literacy programmes, such as those highlighted by the EDISON Alliance, have enabled communities to do more with connectivity.

We can look at Italy for an example of cross-sector collaboration at work. A new joint initiative, 5G Smart School, spearheaded by public and private organizations, including the Qualcomm® Wireless Reach™ Initiative, that provides schools with next-generation wireless technology solutions enabling teachers and students to take advantage of digital tools, content, and experiences.

The initiative aims to dramatically improve teaching and learning in secondary schools across Italy using a compilation of wireless technologies from personal computers to virtual reality, 5G FWA, and 5G mmWave connectivity, training on innovative and digital teaching methodologies, and continuous teacher assistance.

This programme helps address the goals of the Italian Department of Digital Transformation’s “National Strategy for Digital Skills” (Repubblica Digitale), the Italian National Recovery and Resilience Plan (Italy Tomorrow), and the digital divide initiatives of the organizations involved. In 2022, the programme served over 1,000 students and teachers across three schools in different regions of Italy. In the 2022-2023 school year, the initiative plans to expand into five additional schools where students can experience engaging and immersive educational methods.

Closing the digital divide

When we look globally, there are opportunities to close the digital divide across developing and developed countries by recognizing the role of 5G technologies in closing the digital divide, creating conditions for affordable deployment of 5G and 5G FWA, and enabling opportunities to reap the benefits of broadband use. There is an alignment of everyone’s interest, and we have the right technology. Now is the right time to act.

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