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5G Will Not Solve The Digital Divide, Advocates Argue

City of San Antonio
San Antonio has seen a 242% increase in small-cell permits. Small-cell can be used for 4G or 5G, so it is impossible to tell from this data, where the rollout is happening.

To say there is a lot of hype around 5G is probably an understatement. Verizon and T-mobile spent an estimated $22 million in Super Bowl ads to tell us all about it. 

In one commercial Verizon said it would allow firefighters see through smoke and doctors to communicate with ambulances in real time. Actor Anthony Anderson touts the supremacy of T-Mobile’s 5G network to his mother who ground-truths the matter by going from the pie shop to the park to ultimately the club.  


What gets left out of the conversation is that 5G will likely not be rolled city-wide, but — as in technologies past — predominantly in wealthier areas. 5G will bring the next generation of wireless technology to San Antonio and other cities across Texas, but advocates argue it will bring the fifth generation of digital inequality.

“I don’t know how any of us can think that 5G will be different, that the ISPs will make different decisions than they did with previous technologies,” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a non-profit that advocates for connecting low-income and disconnected communities.

“We know that AT&T digitally redlined, we know they skipped low-income neighborhoods when they were rolling out their faster DSL because of the data they gave to the FCC,” she said.

Unlike in banking, digital redlining — or not investing in low-income and minority communities — is not illegal.

AT&T has denied it redlines and in a response to a 2017 FCC complaint in Cleveland, company officials told Broadcastingcable.com that “(AT&T’s) commitment to diversity and inclusion is unparalleled” and its decisions are based on “cost and demand forecast modeling.”

But the ambulances talking to hospitals in real-time via 5G may have some trouble if they travel through any low-income areas.

As a result, 5G won’t close the so-called digital divide Seifer said. In fact, because it will speed the obsolescence of technology low-income people can afford, it will likely make it worse.

But there was a window where cities thought they could make a difference.

5G requires a lot more connection points than 4G, exponentially more and they can’t just put them on a big tower. They have to spread a dense network of what are called small-cell nodes across the area. Telecoms want to put thousands of them in city rights-of-ways and on city-owned poles. 

San Antonio saw a 242% increase in small-cell permits between 2018-2019. 

That would have given cities a lot of leverage — leverage some cities wanted to use to close the digital gap.

“McAllen was offering a substantial discount on the rental rates, if the providers would place any type of WiFi hotspot, it doesn't even have to be 5G, just some kind of internet connectivity to those lower income areas,” said Austin Stevenson with the city of McAllen.

Related | Texas Cities Go To Court Over Law They Say Costs Them Millions

But then the Texas legislature changed the rules in 2017. It capped fees to between 10 and 25% of their market value — or what had already been negotiated. According to multiple cities, the legislature made it nearly impossible for cities to not approve a permit request. Talks between providers and McAllen broke down.

The power to do anything other than entice through streamlining or cajole is pretty much all cities have left. 

“The way the regulatory structure exists today at the federal, state and local level, we’re largely reliant, almost entirely reliant on carrots instead of sticks,” said Ron Nirenberg, mayor of San Antonio.

One in four San Antonio homes don’t have fixed internet, but we don’t know where those homes are.

Thomas Guerra works to document the city’s digital divide at a West Side payment center for the local utility.
Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Thomas Guerra works to document the city’s digital divide at a West Side payment center for the local utility.

Thomas Guerra was working to document the city’s digital divide at a West Side payment center for the local utility. With a bag of candy and some novelty sticky hand toys, he tries to convince residents dropping off their electricity bills.

“Good Morning Sir, Do you have a couple minutes? We’d really appreciate your time,” he said to one passing man.

He was pleasant despite each rebuff. 

The surrounding zip code has a median income of $28,000 and nearly one-third of its residents are in poverty, according to the census. 

This survey will be turned into a map of city districts, showing where in San Antonio the divide exists. Right now, the only data is from the Federal Communications Commission. Critics have called FCC data unreliable as it is self-reported by providers, and isn’t granular enough — being presented in census tracts.

City staff hope they can convince providers to build access into some of these areas when they can show how bad it is.

Related | San Antonio Launches Digital Divide Survey

“I'm going to give you the tool sets and resources that you need to make the right decision. I'm going to put it on you to make that decision moving forward,” said Brian Dillard, San Antonio chief innovation officer. “That's all the leeway I have.”

And even then, it’s just the access. It doesn’t address whether people can afford the $60-$75 monthly cost, or the cost of a new device that can use 5G. 

Advocates as well as lawyers for cities across the country are arguing that the FCC rule change and state laws in Texas that cap fees are essentially a subsidy to corporations like AT&T and Verizon. So, if cities are subsidizing it, can’t companies make the rates more affordable?

“Our most disadvantaged community members end up not participating in that public investment,” said Siefer “That is happening now.”

The chances that 5G would bridge the digital divide were already slim. With rule and law changes at the state and federal level in recent years, Siefer said it’s nearly impossible.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or at Twitter @paulflahive.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org