It’s long been clear that improved information technology holds great promise for improving our lives in many ways, including how we communicate, conduct business, educate and entertain ourselves and obtain health care. And it’s also long been clear that areas lacking population density — count many areas of Keene and the Monadnock Region among them — lag well behind in being able to take advantage of technology advances.
Much of the effort to address that lag has sensibly focused on improving broadband access — seeking incentives and other initiatives to persuade telecommunication firms to bring fiber-optic cable to rural areas that do not otherwise offer sufficiently appealing return on the necessary infrastructure investment. In New Hampshire, some help arrived from legislation passed in 2018, sponsored by Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, that allows for municipal bonding for broadband improvements. This has led to a promising initiative underway in Chesterfield to build a town-wide fiber-optic network, and other area towns are studying similar steps.
But technology, like time and tide, waits for no one, and rural areas are now at risk of lagging behind the latest in cellular innovation at a time when smartphones and cellular services are taking over much of the functionality computers have provided, but with less mobility. This latest technological leap to the fifth generation — or 5G — cellular networks promises to dramatically change how individuals, businesses, institutions and government operate, providing bandwidth that one wireless company claims is up to 200 times faster than its previous best cellular technology and is competitive with fiber networks. The possibilities of 5G’s speed and mobility seem almost limitless right now, including facilitating driverless cars and other vehicular enhancements, providing improved and mobile access to telemedicine and emergency services and (if your eyes can take it) enabling rapid downloads of movies for smartphone viewing.
Despite heavy promotion by telecommunication companies touting the capabilities of 5G, the rollout of 5G, like that of fiber-optic broadband access, appears to be, literally, down the road for many parts of the region. In a report last week, city officials investigating the possibilities of 5G acknowledged that many rural parts of Keene, and thus by implication, the region, are not likely to see 5G infrastructure any time soon, even if businesses and homes in more concentrated parts of the city will attract some investment. This is not surprising, given that rolling out 5G requires the installation of many smaller, low-powered cellular radio access nodes rather than the relatively few and isolated towers that provide current cellular service. Where there are fewer households and businesses to spread the investment among, the higher the cost to providers and, therefore, to customers.
Once again, then, the region finds itself swimming upstream against the technology current. While free-market solutions would be preferable if they are available, it seems likely that without a meaningful leg up from government to aid or incentivize investment, significant parts of the region will fall further behind in the effort to jump on the 5G bandwagon.