The dilemma of next-generation wireless: Will rural areas be left behind when 5G arrives?
Inforum | By Patrick Springer | June 17, 2019

THOMPSON, N.D. — Justin Forde believes the viability of wireless broadband service for sparsely populated rural areas is visible from the top of the Farmers Cooperative Elevator that towers over this Red River Valley farming community.

On a recent hazy June afternoon, standing on top of the 190-foot tall grain elevator, Forde showed visitors the gadgetry that enables rural customers up to 8.8 miles away to receive broadband wireless serves with download speeds of 100 megabits per second.

That’s fast enough to allow customers to stream movies at high, 4K resolution or enable multiplayer gaming on three to five devices at the same time.

“This is next-generation technology,” said Forde, senior director of governmental relations for Midco. “High speed.”

The telecommunications world is racing to deploy the next generation of wireless technology, called 5G, shorthand for fifth generation. The service is now available in some major cities, including Minneapolis.

The next-generation mobile network will provide dazzlingly fast internet access — with speeds of 300 megabits per second or higher.

But experts say it could be up to five years before customers in smaller cities like Fargo and Bismarck can expect to see 5G wireless, and it likely will be available only in densely populated areas, such as the downtowns, the campus of North Dakota State University or state capitol complex.

Justin Forde and Justin Terwee from Midco look out over the horizon from the Thompson Farmers Co-op Elevator in Thompson, N.D. Radio transmitters and antennas on top of the elevator receive and relay wireless signals to rural residential and business consumers in the area. A microwave dish receives a signal from Grand Forks, 32 miles away, and beams wireless broadband to homes up to eight miles away. David Samson / The Forum

That’s because 5G uses very high-frequency radio waves that travel very short distances, requiring a dense — and very expensive — network of transmitters that are cost-effective only in very urban environments.

Given those costs and limitations, rural customers aren’t apt to see 5G mobile service anytime soon, if at all, Forde said.

Midco is advocating an alternative it touts as better suited for remote rural areas called fixed wireless. The company has deployed a network using 140 cell towers, water towers and grain elevators as platforms to transmit and relay wireless signals over an area of more than 14,000 square miles.

“We’re covering every acre of our world-class Red River Valley soil,” Forde said.

In Thompson, a north-facing dish mounted at the top of the elevator receives microwave signals from Grand Forks, about 15 miles away. That signal then is relayed to customers by antennae mounted on a steel tower atop the elevator.

“As you can see, this is rural America,” Forde said, gesturing to the patchwork of farm fields, shelterbelts and farmsteads surrounding the elevator.

Farmsteads often lie outside fiber networks. “It’s such a great tool to reach out to them,” he said.

The Thompson site serves about 400 customers who are in a test area, using radio frequency spectrum Midco is urging federal officials to make more broadly available. Once approval is given, Midco can provide download speeds of 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of 20 megabits per second throughout its fixed-wireless network in the Red River Valley.

At distances longer than about 8.8 miles from a transmitting point like the Thompson elevator, slower speeds apply.

Midco plans to extend its fixed-wireless service to rural areas outside the reach of its broadband fiber network to southeastern South Dakota, including the Mitchell area, as well as central and southern Minnesota over the next several years, Forde said.

Collectively, he added, those areas hold about 200,000 homes. The network can be upgraded in the future.

“We have a path to fixed 5G,” he said, an option that wouldn’t serve mobile customers. “We’re 5G ready.”

Justin Terwee and Justin Forde from Midco look out over the horizon from the Thompson Farmers Co-op Elevator in Thompson, N.D. Radio transmitters and antennas on top of the elevator receive and relay wireless signals to rural residential and business consumers in the area. A microwave dish receives a signal from Grand Forks, 32 miles away, and beams wireless broadband to homes up to eight miles away. David Samson / The Forum

It’s often overlooked, but the underground fiber broadband network is an essential part of the wireless network. Those cell towers that dot the American landscape are connected to fiber.

“You can’t have wireless without wire,” said Seth Arndorfer, chief executive officer of the Dakota Carrier Network, a high-speed internet network that serves vast areas of North Dakota.

Arndorfer, whose company, like Midco, works closely with wireless partners, predicts that the 5G mobile network will begin to appear in larger markets including Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot within five years.

“We’ll see limited deployments in higher-population areas,” he said.

Examples would include downtowns, university campuses, medical centers, arenas, major traffic thoroughfares — places with enough users to support the investment required to install small-cell towers, often attached to utility poles or street lights.

Although rural areas are apt to be left behind in the emerging 5G era, North Dakota is well-wired; 95 percent of the state’s households have broadband fiber access, Arndorfer said.

Dakota Carrier Network, established in 1996 by 14 rural telephone providers, has invested $1 billion to build the broadband network.

“Collectively, we have over 40,000 miles of fiber optic cable in the ground in North Dakota,” he said.

The dishes facing north are receiving microwave transmissions from Grand Forks that Midco bounces to rural customers located up to eight miles from the Thompson Farmers Co-op Elevator. David Samson / The Forum

In Minnesota, 91 percent of the population has broadband access of 25 megabits per second or faster, with 44.3 megabits per second as the statewide average connection speed, according to BroadbandNow, which advocates for universal broadband access.

That’s a bit faster than North Dakota, where the statewide average is 32.7 megabits per second, according to the advocacy group’s figures.

Verizon and AT&T, two major wireless providers, are keeping mum about when they expect to introduce 5G service in Fargo or Bismarck and other urban centers in North Dakota.

“While we have not yet announced specific plans for 5G cities in North Dakota, we continue investing in building the network our customers need today and preparing for the future,” Mark Giga, a spokesman for AT&T said in a statement.

AT&T announced in February that it will bring 5G service to parts of Minneapolis this year.

Verizon, which started providing 5G in certain areas of Minneapolis in April, has not publicly announced plans for cities in North Dakota or outstate Minnesota.

“Beyond the cities we announced, we don’t have further information to share at this time regarding other cities,” said Heidi Flato, a Verizon spokeswoman.

Sprint didn’t respond to The Forum’s inquiries about its 5G plans for the area.

Duane Schell, chief information officer for the state of North Dakota, expects to see 5G wireless in North Dakota sooner than in five years.

“I tend to believe that the 5G rollout will be a bit faster than the 4G rollout across the country,” he said.

Actually, Schell believes that there will be different versions of 5G wireless, with some providing lower speeds but covering wider areas. Some of those options might work in rural areas, he said.

But Schell agrees that major urban markets will be the first to gain access to next-generation wireless. Early discussions already are taking place with carriers involving 5G mobile access for the capitol complex in Bismarck, Schell said.

“We are already engaged with multiple carriers with their small-cell deployments,” he said. “They’re building out their infrastructure to be prepared for 5G.”

The same is true in Fargo, Schell and Arndorfer said. “If you drive around Fargo today you will see these antennas on light poles,” he said. “They are already popping up across the state.”

Small-cell wireless transmitters are starting to show up on light poles and utility poles as the next-generation wireless network, called 5G, is beginning to roll out in major cities. At&T and Verizon have not said when 5G will come to cities like Fargo or Bismarck. Photo Special to The Forum

The demand for 5G wireless connectivity will mushroom with technological advances including the “internet of things,” with gadgets linked online, self-driving cars, drones and precision agriculture.

So far, farmers who use precision agriculture methods — sometimes called site-specific crop management — are adequately served by the existing 4G wireless or satellite networks, said Brian Carroll, director of operations for Emerging Prairie and Grand Farm, a fully autonomous farm under development 7 miles south of Fargo.

“Right now it’s good enough for the technology that’s here,” he said of wireless network speeds available to farmers.

Fixed wireless, he said, is an example of a technology that is currently available. The Red River Valley and North Dakota are probably better positioned than many rural areas for wireless access, given the widespread fiber networks, Carroll said.

“You just don’t need a solution for Fargo,” he said. “You want a solution that can scale everywhere.”

Given the history of technology adoption, 5G will begin as a premium service, commanding a premium price, Schell said. But as competition increases, he added, prices will go down and service will improve.

“I expect 5G to very quickly become the norm,” Schell said. “I think we’re going to see 5G everywhere just like you see 4G everywhere,” with greater capacity and performance in urban areas.

What is 5G wireless?

  • 5G is shorthand for the next generation of wireless communications. Most current cell phones use the 4G network.
  • 5G, which uses extremely high radio frequencies, will deliver ultra-fast speeds, 10 or even 20 times faster than 4G.
  • Websites will load faster, videos will start playing faster, multiplayer games won’t lag with 5G.
  • The ultra-high frequencies used by 5G travel very short distances, requiring dense distributions of transmitters that aren’t well suited to areas that are remote or sparsely populated.
  • 5G will help usher in an era of self-driving cars and the “internet of things,” interconnected devices, as well as virtual reality.