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IoT's impact on the digital divide

Advances in connectivity have widened the digital divide, leaving many mid-to-low income Americans at risk of being left even further behind. According to Pew Research Center, three out of 10 adult households with incomes under $30K do not own smartphones and almost half of these households also lack broadband internet connection. Conversely, nearly all higher earning households ($100K+ annual salary) have access to multiple smart devices.

This kind of disparity will have long lasting effects on American socioeconomic culture. While many Americans take for granted their ability to peruse social media and connect with friends and family, a whole segment of our nation lacks these abilities. This latter group is negatively impacted by the absence of exposure to immediate information. This is particularly true of younger children and teenagers who are prevented from being competitive academically with their well-connected peers. This divide will have drastic implications for generations to come.

Many companies are looking for ways to address the widespread connectivity issues. Sprint is among them, and has launched “The 1Million Project”, an initiative that will provide better cellular and data coverage to correct the homework gap that affects millions of schools and students schools across the United States due to lack of internet access. Connectivity is graduating from “luxury” to “necessity” and will only become more important as internet of things gains traction.

Most analyst firms anticipate somewhere between 20 billion and 50 billion devices being connected by 2020. By some estimates, affluent homes will have as many as 500 connected devices. With smart cities becoming a reality, the digital divide between rural and urban markets is potentially poised to grow even wider in terms of connected living.

However, with careful consideration, the IoT market can mature in ways that benefit all demographics. It is possible to mitigate the damage exacerbated by today’s connectivity gap.

The road to a negative outcome

IoT requires adaptable, but consistent connectivity, leaving the potential for smart devices to create benefits that not everyone can utilize. For instance, smart sensors within the home offer the ability to automatically turn off a stove that was mistakenly left on. Even insurance companies are getting in on the smart home trend; people can lower their insurance premiums by utilizing certain connected devices.

Moreover, the current business model for adding IoT devices to a cellular plan may not scale in the consumer’s favor. If lower-income individuals lack a smartphone or have limited money to spend on a cellular plan, they’re unlikely to afford additional monthly fees for connected devices (consider the $10 monthly fee for the new cellular Apple Watch).

Perhaps the most worrisome threat of IoT on the digital divide is the rise of smart cities. What’s great for urban city dwellers will be absent for rural citizens. This includes early projects, like LinkNYC, where New York City transformed existing telecom infrastructure into wireless convenience (i.e., replaced payphones with Wi-Fi hubs). Meanwhile, rural towns are struggling to get broadband infrastructure in place. Smart cities don’t just exist overnight; they become “smarter” due to years of previous telecom investments.

Toronto is projected to be one of the first true smart cities. As one of the test subjects for Sidewalk Labs, Toronto will soon have sensors and cameras to capture constant, real-time information as a result of the company’s $50 million contribution to the project. The updated technology will monitor traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, travel patterns and more. If executed as planned, cities such as Toronto could be more proactive in solving citywide issues that were never before monitored and identified.

Taking public safety into consideration, the advantages that smart cities may have over rural areas could be profound. IoT technologies such as mounted cameras and other connectivity devices allow first responders to provide extended monitoring capabilities to make cities safer and reaction times to events even quicker. Utility companies can use IoT to monitor different types of infrastructure (like pipes, wiring and so forth) in order to oversee aging equipment and detect issues before they happen.

The path to a positive outcome

Project Loon, a helium balloon put forth by Alphabet (Google’s parent company) offers a hopeful example of how IoT can bridge the digital divide. The product was deployed to help achieve connectivity in Puerto Rico after the series of natural disasters decimated nearly all connectivity on the island.

Project Loon is ongoing, but not limited to disaster recovery. Loon is an example of how this kind of project could develop into an ongoing way to solve for rural connectivity. According to early tests, Loon was able to stay in the appropriate place for up to 90 days based on Google’s algorithms that anticipated wind speeds and direction. While questions remain on how a Loon-like initiative could be funded to supply rural areas with much-needed connectivity, this project offers a glimpse of how to democratize access to the internet.

Consumerization of the small cell also has potential to help alleviate the widening digital divide. Sprint recently unveiled its “Magic Box,” an affordable all-wireless small cell which uses existing cell towers for backhaul to allow households to boost cellular signal throughout individual homes. This product isn’t an IoT device, but highlights the direction technology is headed, fueled by consumers’ growing comfort with connected products. The success of this product could create a DIY aspect of reducing connectivity issues in rural areas; neighbors will be able to help neighbors overcome the digital divide due to the range of small cells including the Magic Box.

Within the field of telecom, significant advances are being made to advance the growth of IoT. To encourage IoT, connectivity providers of all sorts are working to identify ways to fill in the dead zones and create blanket connection and redundancy for multiple frequencies. Contrary to a common belief, 5G will not be used to handle all IoT connections, and devices will still need to leverage valuable 4G and 3G connections. Carriers and telecom vendors are making strides to provide better ongoing connection to rural areas through a combination of coverage solutions. Providers of DAS and small cells have evolved from only offering boosted cellular signals and network densification in-building to building mobile and outdoor technologies that can help solve for the last mile.

While each year widens the digital divide between rural communities and metropolitan smart cities as a result of innovation, 5G and telecom companies are working to supply increased connection to rural areas to bring about positive change and close the gap. By working together as an industry, this feat seems more possible than ever before.

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