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Who Gets 5G — And Who Gets Left Behind — Has Some Worried About Digital Inequality

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

In one commercial, Verizon said it would allow firefighters to see through smoke and doctors to communicate with ambulances in real time. Actor Anthony Anderson touted 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 be rolled out the same way as in technologies past — predominantly in wealthier areas. 5G will bring the next generation of wireless technology to cities across Texas, but advocates argue it will bring the fifth generation of digital inequality to low-income and rural areas.

"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 nonprofit 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," Siefer said.

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

AT&T has denied that 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."

Many would argue that companies putting infrastructure where people can afford to upgrade are doing what makes the most money.

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

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

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.

San Antonio city employees survey low-income residents about their access to the Internet. One in four San Antonio homes lack an Internet connection.
Paul Flahive / Texas Public Radio
San Antonio city employees survey low-income residents about their access to the Internet. One in four San Antonio homes lack an Internet connection.

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

"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."

The power to do anything other than entice through streamlining or cajoling 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.

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 way and on city-owned poles.

San Antonio saw a 242% increase in small-cell permits in 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 Wi-Fi hot spot — 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.

But then the state 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.

They said they made the changes to speed the rollout of the technology, but Harold Feld with the advocacy organization Public Knowledge says speed isn't always important.

"If we made deployment fairer rather than faster, we'd still get there in plenty of time, and we'd have a lot fewer people on the wrong side of the digital divide," said Feld.

The chances that 5G would bridge the digital divide were already slim. With regulatory changes, advocates say it's nearly impossible.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.