The importance of connected devices for conducting business has grown significantly over the past decade and looks to be getting more crucial — more than 60 percent of the global GDP in 2022 was expected to depend on digital technologies, according to World Economic Forum data. That’s great news for tech developers, but the downside is 37 percent of the world’s population (almost 3 billion people) are offline or don’t have access to reliable Internet connections.
“It is time we created awareness of the issues and more importantly, the advanced yet affordable solutions available to solve them,” Qualcomm Chief Sustainability Officer Angela Baker said during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. “For instance, 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) provides the perfect opportunity for public-private collaboration on global digital literacy goals and programs.”
Why it’s important to close the digital divide
The COVID-19 pandemic showed how critical it is to have reliable wireless connectivity, both to conduct remote work as well as communicate with people on a personal level who could not be seen in person. When people don’t have internet access, they become isolated from society, information and opportunities, Baker said. The more opportunities that shift to online only, the more obvious the consequences of the digital divide become.
“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,” Baker said. “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.”
Closing the digital divide could also increase the GDP per capita by 2.5 percent in 2032, according to Qualcomm. Emerging and developing nations could see the largest gains, while the global GDP could increase by approximately $3.3 trillion.
5G’s role in closing the digital divide
Mobile broadband with 3G, 4G and currently 5G have helped broaden connectivity and affordability, but fixed broadband is still behind, according to Baker. Availability, cost and insufficient digital skills are just a few of the reasons why homes, small businesses and schools haven’t been able to access quality Internet connections. Deploying fiber in a lot of underserved areas is often deemed too expensive and difficult, so operators haven’t made it a priority.
However, 5G FWA offers a powerful solution to give homes, schools and small and mid-sized business that connectivity they’ve been lacking. Providing this access also benefits the rest of the world as it would become even more connected.
“Designed to be the technology that will connect everything to the cloud, 5G opens up a universe of possibilities,” Baker said. “And 5G FWA can deliver the same connection quality as fiber thanks to enhanced capabilities, such as millimeter-wave (mmWave).”
With 5G mmWave, 5G’s full potential can be experienced “by enabling extreme capacity, ultra-high throughput, and ultra-low latency,” according to Qualcomm. Additionally, operators can increase a network’s capacity to meet the growing demand for data in homes, dense urban centers and enterprise environments. FWA is also faster to deploy than fiber in people’s homes as it sidesteps a lot of permitting and regulatory issues, and is 80 percent more cost effective than fiber deployment.
5G boosts public-private collaboration
5G FWA offers opportunities for public-private collaborations on global digital literacy goals and programs such as education and health, according to Qualcomm. Putting digital literacy programs in place, like the ones the EDISON Alliance has highlighted, allows enabled areas to do more with their Internet connectivity.
For example, in Italy, public and private organizations formed a new joint initiative, the 5G Smart School that gave schools next-generation wireless solutions so teachers and students could leverage digital tools, content and more. The initiative’s goal is to improve learning and teaching in secondary schools throughout Italy with wireless tech including personal computers, virtual reality and 5G FWA.
“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,” Baker said. “There is an alignment of everyone’s interest, and we have the right technology. Now is the right time to act.”