Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona showcased some of the newest mobile innovations along with interactive 5G demos and a bevy of product announcements. In the midst of all this progress and promise, there remains an undeniable fact — there are still Internet access disparities between residents of rural and urban areas. And the digital divide between lower-income and higher-income communities can only be closed with new approaches and solutions.

Mobile internet services improved, but many low-income countries are seeing slow progress, according to the EIU Internet Inclusivity Index 2019 study commissioned by Facebook. Dr. Robert Pepper, head of Global Connectivity Policy and Planning at Facebook, summarizes the profound nature of the situation in a blog as follows:

This year, the study revealed stalled progress on closing the digital divide. In contrast to previous years, the gap between the lowest income countries and all others grew. Although the overall gap between those with access to the internet and those without narrowed – because of progress on access, quality of coverage, and affordability – the lowest income countries fell behind because they improved at a slower rate than other countries and much slower than last year.

The study, which includes contributions and insights from Cisco, tracks indicators of Internet inclusion, quantitative measures such as network coverage and pricing, and qualitative measures such as the presence of e-inclusion policies and the availability of local-language content along with the network performance measures. Cisco provides unique analyses pertaining to end user average download speeds, average upload speeds and average latency for over 150 countries from the Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI).

Looking at regions with emerging economies, 68% of the Middle East and Africa’s population, 38% of Asia Pacific’s population and 31% of Latin America’s population will still be without access to the Internet by 2022 (according to the updated Cisco VNI Forecast, 2017-2022). Among various connectivity platforms, public Wi-Fi programs have real potential to help connect the next billion, as featured at the Cisco-Google Station demo at MWC. Globally, there will be nearly 549 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022, up from 124 million hotspots in 2017, a fourfold increase. Wi-Fi is widely used as a mobile offload mechanism and will be even more necessary in the 5G era for IoT applications since cellular connectivity can be limited due to the costs of mobile plans and spectrum availability.

Figure 1: Growth in Global Public Wi-Fi Hotspots

Many mobile subscribers continue stretch the limits of their mobile data plans and mobile data traffic is projected to grow 7-fold from 2017 to 2022.  The importance of Wi-Fi remains strong given the limited spectrum availability on the mobile side, leading to mobile carriers’ implementation of tiered pricing and data caps to manage mobile network usage.

In fact, by 2022, offload from cellular to Wi-Fi will be even higher on 5G compared to 4G and 3G because 5G devices will be even more media-centric, and the users on 5G will consume more media and video and switch to Wi-Fi when possible due to data caps. The reason is that when a new generation of technology with higher speeds is introduced, it does tend to have a higher offload rate. 4G did too, at first.

Figure 2: Global Mobile Data Traffic and Offload Traffic – 2022 (4G and 5G devices offload more traffic than 3G and 2G devices).

New cellular networks have less availability at the outset due to high demand.  Traditionally, mobile operators have applied more stringent data caps at the initial stages of next-generation network roll-outs. The top 1% of mobile users generated 6% of mobile data traffic in 2018, down from 52% at the beginning of 2010. This can be attributed to the overall success in operators implementing data caps and tiered pricing.

Wi-Fi is a necessary complement to cellular technology, with dual-mode devices such as smartphones and tablets that can switch seamlessly to a Wi-Fi hotspot, home or business WLAN network. Global Wi-Fi speeds will also more than double to reach 54.2 Mbps by 2022 — which makes it a viable alternative to cellular access for an optimum end user experience.

Various commercial roll-outs of 5G are slated for the 2020 timeframe in a select set of countries. 5G subscribers can expect to experience average speeds in the range of 170 Mbps by 2022. A small number of subscribers relative to all mobile subscribers will experience these three digit speeds, but the promise of it is simply spectacular. 5G will be over 4 times faster than experienced 4G speeds by 2022. These accelerated speeds will improve consumer experiences, enable new VR and AR applications, and support massive machine type communications with telemedicine, transport, smart energy, agriculture, retail, V2V2X (Vehicle-to-Vehicle-to-Everything Relay) communication, drone delivery, monitoring, manufacturing and much more.

Figure 3: Global Mobile Average Speeds by Network Type, 5G speeds will reach 170 Mbps by 2022

This progress in both cellular and Wi-Fi technologies will help service providers and governments connect the next billion resulting in improved online education, better health services with telemedicine to rural areas, local economic development, increased productivity, social inclusion, as well as the use of the internet as a catalyst for change.

The BBC has commenced the trial of live radio broadcasts over 5G mobile networks. 5G RuralFirst in partnership with Cisco in the UK aims to identify practical use cases of how enhanced connectivity will benefit businesses and communities in rural areas across the country. It’s about building a business case for 5G roll outs beyond urban areas and demonstrating the value of investing in the digital infrastructure serving rural businesses and communities for the benefit of the entire country.

As an augmentation of current mobile technologies, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 ensure significant economic advantages. 5G and Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) will enable dense IoT deployments and are transformative to many industries. The most noticeable growth in devices and connections is going to occur in machine-to-machine (M2M) connections. M2M mobile connections will grow to nearly a third (31 percent) of total devices and connections, reaching 3.9 billion by 2022 (per Cisco’s Mobile VNI Forecast update). Public transportation, agriculture, farming, healthcare, public safety among others – all IoT growth areas – can enable new markets, develop and transform current industries, as well as support new socio-economic and personal empowerment benefits.

As we move to a more digitally-connected world, the need for Internet access has never been greater. The opportunity for 5G and Wi-Fi 6 to extend the world’s Internet community to areas that have never been connected promises to create astounding growth opportunities — leapfrogging prior generations of technology. The newly connected will never have the audible “joy” of hearing a dial-up modem’s electronic melody nor will they have to develop the manual dexterity required to avoid fat fingering a message on a flip cell phone keypad. Let’s not count the lack of those old digital rites of passage against them. We’ll simply welcome them to the new mobile broadband world that can unite and empower us all!


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Usha Andra

Leader, Product Marketing

Data Center and Cloud Networking