What 5G means for rural internet availability

ALBANY COUNTY — Widespread internet access in the Hilltowns and other underserved rural areas may be a bit closer to reality.

The national deployment of 5G — the fifth generation of cell-phone networks, hailed as the faster and broader successor to 4G — is expected to bring serious improvements in the world of tech, from faster internet searches and downloads for individual users, to the adoption of new or improved smart technologies in cities, like sensors that help officials track air quality and traffic.

The wireless technology company Qualcomm expects that 5G will enable the exchange of $13.1 trillion worth of goods and services across the globe by 2035. 

But 5G also has big implications for those who have trouble accessing the internet altogether. 

Jason Guzzo, the general manager of Hudson Valley Wireless, explained to The Enterprise last week that, although “much of the 5G benefit will come from supporting devices outside the home,” the new network type “will help [internet service providers] like Hudson Valley Wireless provide rural internet availability.”

According to Qualcomm, 5G uses alternating radio frequencies to reduce connection interference. What this means practically, Guzzo explained, is that bandwidth, which he likened to the number of lanes in a road, will expand, while latency, the time it takes for a signal to travel, will go down. 

However, 5G is not just one thing, and how it affects the online experience depends on the type of deployment. For instance, PCMag ran an article on Jan. 20, the day 5G was rolled out nationally, arguing that the current 5G network in the United States is lesser than that in other countries, where different bands are used, particularly C-band. In the United States, C-band is reportedly used primarily for television broadcasting but is becoming more available to cellular companies as technology allows for denser data transfers.

Guzzo told The Enterprise that some companies are planning to use the millimeter wave spectrum in urban areas to provide top speeds, but that this would not be viable in rural areas because of trees and the coverage distance. 

Guzzo also highlighted the differences in hardware, which is where cellular companies and companies like Hudson Valley Wireless most notably diverge. Cellular companies, Guzzo said, generally operate mobile networks that rely on free devices like cell phones and hotspots, while Hudson Valley Wireless is focused on building fixed-wireless networks that allow households to use a “high-gain antenna” to yield signals from a company tower.

“This equipment is used in rural and remote areas and provides a significantly better signal in line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight deployments,” Guzzo said.

It also reduces the need for cable installation, which is arguably the biggest obstacle for rural communities who, without funding from higher levels of government, would be forced to front the cost for installation themselves — something internet service providers won’t do because of its poor return on investment. 

Like the already popular satellite internet services, 5G networks work with relatively minimal hardware and can cover some hard-to-reach areas at lower cost than installing cables. Wireless Internet Service Provider Association board member Jeff Kohler estimated in a 2017 interview that the cost of building a wireless network would be between a fifth to a 10th of the cost of building a cabled one.

But, Guzzo reiterated, all this only makes a difference if users are on a fixed-wireless 5G network.

Guzzo said that Hudson Valley Wireless already runs on 4.5G, a step between the near-ubiquitous 4G and 5G, which has technically been around and usable for longer than its official switch-on date. 

“Many large national carriers use 5G as a marketing term,” Guzzo said. “Technically, the Hudson Valley Wireless network is capable of 5G from our core in Albany … to the equipment we install on the towers. We just need to add software to support applications.”

Hudson Valley Wireless presently offers connections up to 200 Megabits per second for homes, Guzzo said, adding that “5G will primarily help us support SMART Meter, SMART Agriculture, IoT (Internet of Things), and other emerging technologies.”

The Enterprise reported that there was some uproar in New Scotland in 2018 regarding a Federal Communications Commission order that, essentially, allowed wireless telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T to circumvent the usual local planning processes for the purpose of installing microcell towers, which are much smaller than typical 100- to 200-foot towers, measuring up to 3o feet high.

At the time, the FCC quoted estimates that 800,000 of these cell sites would be newly installed by 2026. New Scotland, which had been rushing to adopt new regulations for these towers, complained that the FCC’s mandate that towers be approved within 60 to 90 days — hardly a moment in terms of local planning — was “tying our hands,” in the words of Councilman Bill Hennessy. 

However, it does not appear that these towers will be much of a concern in the Hilltowns as AT&T and T-Mobile each have some form of 5G coverage within parts of the Hilltowns, though Verizon does not, according to its own coverage map. 

AT&T has recently been expanding cellular capabilities in the rural Hilltowns by installing new equipment on the tower atop U’hai mountain, primarily for the benefit of first responders whose communications travel over particular wave-lengths (though these waves can be used, when available, by consumers). 

Verizon communications manager Chris Serico, when asked about Verizon expanding its 5G coverage in the Enterprise coverage area said he couldn’t “share specifics about future deployment plans in your area.”

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