Journal of Independent Studies and Research – Computing Volume 14 Issue 1 Jan-June 2016 43
Abstract—This paper looks at the emergence of the
fifth generation of wireless networks, commonly referred
to by the acronym 5G, from a perspective informed by the
literature on digital divides and digital inequality. 5G has
been designed with the goal of minimising inequalities in
physical access, in particular differences in access that
arise as a consequence of the rural-urban divide. Together
with the Internet of Things, 5G is likely to usher in a new
era of economic growth, and to lead to general improve-
ments in quality of life. However, the impact of 5G on
socio-economic status is not so clear cut. In some instanc-
es, 5G is likely to magnify social inequality, while in other
instances it is likely to narrow social inequality. 5G also
has the potential to alter existing socio-economic hierar-
chies, and this paper cautions policy makers and social
elites to minimise the negative impacts of attendant social
We are now currently at a stage where the predominant
mode of electronic communication is through mobile technol-
ogy, and whereby the predominant medium for communica-
tion is the internet . This electronic communication
increasingly involves both man-to-man communication as
well as machine-to-machine communication. By 2020 it is
expected that 50 billion devices will be connected to mobile
networks, leading to a thousand-fold increase in the volume
of data handled by mobile networks . Fifth generation (5G)
network architectures able to handle this huge amount of data
from heterogeneous devices are currently being investigated
[1, 2]. At a minimum, 5G networks should be highly scalable
with regard to the number of connected devices that they can
handle, and to cater for a wide variety of services, including
those services we cannot anticipate at the present moment,
they should be adaptable enough to simultaneously provide a
diverse range of quality of service (QoS) requirements [3, 4].
It is expected that 5G networks should be greener than
current mobile network technologies with respect to cost,
The Impending 5G Era and
Its Likely Impact on Society
Keywords—5G, digital divide, digital inequality, Internet
of Things, IoT.
University College London, London, UK.
energy consumption and resource utilisation, and should be
available to anyone anywhere virtually all the time. To this
extent, compared to current mobile networks, 5G networks
should [3, 4]:
To ensure delivery of these requirements, it is anticipat-
ed that the emerging 5G networks will have to comprise
multiple heterogeneous technologies interworking together
. It is also expected that the 5G networks should be
user-centric so as to provide a flexible, personalised service
that meets end-user needs. According to a 2014 survey of
mobile network users by Enders Analysis, the quality of
service parameters that are of most concern to users are
reliability (47%), coverage (36%) and data speed (9%) . To
meet these user concerns, 5G networks should :
• Have the capacity to handle a 1000-fold increase in mobile
• Support 10 to 100 times today’s current data rates
• Offer at least 10 times today’s current battery life for low
power devices connected to the network
• Have 5 times less end-to-end latency
• Have 90% less energy usage
• Offer a perceived availability of 99.999%
• Provide almost 100% coverage irrespective of users’
• Provide a continuous, uninterrupted service with minimum
• Hide any network technicalities and complexities from the
• Offer user personalization and service differentiation
• Keep track of quality of user experience and to optimize
this in an energy efficient manner.
Clearly, the network requirements for 5G networks have
been designed with the objective of ensuring that everyone
will have equal access to the network regardless of their
location and their social status in the community. For
instance, the requirement to provide a coverage of almost
100% in all locations indicates that people in remote rural
areas will have access to the same services as people living in
Journal of Independent Studies and Research – Computing Volume 14 Issue 1 Jan-June 201644
metropolitan areas. Guaranteeing a continuous uninterrupted
service that has the same capacity across all locations also
ensures that quality of service seizes to be location dependent.
On the basis of the proposed 5G network requirements,
it appears that proponents of 5G networks believe that if 5G is
able to deliver on these requirements, then the digital divide
between social groups, and between rural and urban commu-
nities will be largely addressed. Providing equal access to a
communication platform such as the 5G network has the
potential to provide equal access to information, contacts and
resources, and therefore equality of opportunity, regardless of
social status. However van Dijk and Hacker  have recently
argued that providing equal access, through for example,
giving everyone a computer and a network connection, does
not necessarily address the digital divide.
Rather, van Dijk and Hacker argue that the concept of a
digital divide is a complex phenomenon that goes beyond
equality of physical access, and that is rooted in the social
inequalities inherent in modern society. This suggests that for
5G to deliver on its objectives, more needs to be done beyond
guaranteeing an equal access network. One of the objectives
of this paper is to identify those non-technical social aspects
that need to be addressed to ensure that the equal access and
equality of opportunity goals of 5G are realized.
The relationship between technology and social inequal-
ity is not static, or unidirectional. As Freeman Dyson has
recently argued, the introduction of a new technology into
society has the potential to address current social inequalities,
and to give rise to new social inequalities that also need to be
addressed . This means that 5G has the potential to address
current inequalities, and the potential to introduce new
inequalities. This paper will attempt to clarify the current
social inequalities that can be addressed by the introduction of
5G. In addition, an attempt will be made to identify any
potential inequalities that may be spawned by the introduction
II. DIGITAL DIVIDE AND DIGITAL INEQUALITY
IN THE WIRELESS ERA
Over the past twenty years the use of information and
communication technology has become central to everyday
life. Advances in the proliferation and use of the internet has
led to an increasingly networked world, and the ability to
access the internet and to use it effectively now has signifi-
cant economic, social, cultural and political implications on
individuals. Given that access to the internet is increasing-
ly taking place through mobile technology, this also means
that how people access and use 5G will have consequences on
their life chances. Increasingly, people are using the internet
for day to day activities such as shopping, social networking,
looking for jobs and business opportunities and for entertain-
ment. With the advent of 5G this trend is bound to increase.
This suggests that those people with unrestricted access to 5G
and have the ability and skills to fully utilise it have a distinct
advantage over those with restricted access, or those who, for
a variety of reasons, are unable to fully utilise the 5G in
pursuit of their life goals.
The term “digital divide” is often used to refer to
unequal access to digital networks such as the internet, which
is by far, the de facto digital communication medium for the
whole world. Hargittai suggests that in practice, the term
“digital divide” has been used to differentiate between those
who have access to a de facto communication medium and
those who do not have access . She feels that this is no
longer appropriate since the majority of society is now online,
and all these people have varying levels of access to the
internet, and use it in a variety of ways. She proposes the term
“digital inequality” to capture this spectrum of differences in
access and use of digital communication mediums. Given that
a stated goal of 5G is to provide universal mobile access to
the internet, it would seem that the term “digital inequality” is
more descriptive of how society is likely to engage with 5G
as opposed to the term “digital divide” with its implication of
a binary divide in access.
A general perception amongst researchers is that the
digital divide and digital inequality are both rooted in social
inequality [7, 9-13]. When the internet first emerged in the
1990’s it was widely believed that it would help to provide a
more egalitarian access to information. Contrary to this
belief, however, it quickly became clear that some social
groupings, notably those who were highly educated and on
high incomes, were more likely to use the internet than other
groupings . This suggested that the internet, contrary to
equalizing access to information, was actually having the
opposite effect by accentuating the inequalities in society
. 5G offers the same promise of providing equal access to
information channels and social networks as the Internet, and
it is therefore pertinent to explore how social inequalities
contribute to inequality, and how this can be mitigated.
Van Dijk and Hacker  identified four dimensions of
digital inequality. These dimensions are a lack of appropriate
experience in the new digital technology, non-possession of
access technologies such as computers and network connec-
tions, lack of digital skills, and lack of significant usage
opportunities. In the early 1990’s when mobile technology
and the internet were introduced, inexperience with the
emerging technologies and non-possession of access devices
were the most critical dimensions. People most affected by
Journal of Independent Studies and Research – Computing Volume 14 Issue 1 Jan-June 2016 45
this included the elderly, those with low educational qualifi-
cations, those on low incomes, as well as those who lived in
Once a person managed to gain easy access to the
internet, then they easily acquired the necessary skills to
operate in that medium. This means that those with the
resources and ability to get onto the internet had a head start
compared to less able people. It is therefore apparent that an
individual’s lack or possession of digital skills is to some
extent influenced by access to the new technology, and by the
person’s ability to learn and master the new technology.
As a general rule the young and the educated are better
able to adopt and experiment with new technologies and to
use them in their day to day lives. In contrast, the elderly and
less educated are less inclined to adopt new technologies. An
example is the internet whereby in advanced economies the
elderly are less likely to use the internet even though it has the
scope to offer them a better livelihood given their restricted
mobility as a result of age. If the elderly are able to access and
use the Internet, then it becomes possible for them to take
control of their lives by using it to undertake every day activi-
ties like banking, shopping and even getting medical advice.
With advances in internet and networking technologies,
including 5G, it is apparent that more and more activities are
going to be accessible over the internet, thereby making
access to 5G a necessity for modern day life. 5G will enable a
wide variety of sensors to be connected to homes and to
individuals, and this will enable doctors to monitor the health
conditions of the elderly directly and in real time. Hence, it is
of direct benefit to the elderly if they are sufficiently motivat-
ed to engage with emerging 5G technologies.
5G promises equal access to all individuals regardless of
location. This means that even people in rural areas are likely
to have the same level of access as people in urban areas.
However, compared to urban areas, rural areas are more
sparsely populated, and therefore more expensive to connect
than urban areas. The task of interconnecting rural areas
cannot therefore be left to private network providers as this
tends to be uneconomic. Government has to contribute to this
through formulating appropriate policies, giving incentives to
network providers, and directly investing in network
infrastructure. Just as it is the responsibility of governments
to provide people with transport networks, it should also be
the responsibility of government to ensure that everyone has
equal access to 5G regardless of location.
5G also promises to make the technicalities and
complexities of the underlying technology transparent to
users. This is very important in reducing digital inequality
since technologies that are not user-friendly often lead to
access problems in practice . This suggests that 5G users
will not experience a significant jump in the look and feel of
user interfaces. This can be achieved by the development of
multimodal user interfaces that allow the user to interact with
the network using all five senses, including voice, hand
gestures and facial gazes . Multimodal user interfaces
reduce the need to learn complex sequences of instructions,
and in this way they make complex networks more tractable.
In addition, we are also witnessing the advent of intelligent
personal assistants in mobile and computing devices. These
personal assistants simplify man-machine interfaces by antic-
ipating user needs and issuing commands and requests to the
underlying technology to carry out various tasks on behalf of
the user. Examples include Apple’s Siri  and Google Now
. Intelligent personal assistants are likely to improve over
time, and it is possible that by the time 5G is well established,
they will be in routine use. This will help to realise another
objective of 5G, namely to facilitate personalised services for
A key feature of 5G is that it enables access to the
internet by both individuals and by connected devices[2, 3].
Indeed, 5G is being developed with a view to serving as the
communication medium for the Internet of Things (IoT).
Atzori et al.  define the IoT as world-wide network of
interconnected objects uniquely addressable, based on stand-
ard communication protocols. They also believe that the IoT
will make possible a huge range of applications, including
new applications in transportation and logistics, healthcare,
smart environments, and personal and social domains. Such
applications have the potential to improve our quality of life
by taking charge of the day to day mundane aspects of our
business and social lives. A key consequence of this is that the
need for extensive digital skills is likely to disappear as IoT
technologies become more widely utilized.
Looking back at Van Dijk and Hacker’s dimensions of
digital inequality, it would appear that introduction of 5G is
well placed to address the three dimensions directly associat-
ed with physical access and use of the network. 5G achieves
this through guaranteeing these three dimensions are a lack of
appropriate experience in the new digital technology,
non-possession of access technologies such as computers and
network connections, and a lack of digital skills. The fourth
dimension, namely the lack of significant usage opportuni-
ties, requires some more in depth analysis.
III. EQUALITY OF USAGE OPPORTUNITIES
IN THE 5G ERA
Even when equal access is guaranteed, there are still
differences in people’s ability to leverage a digital network to
their benefit. Van Dijk  suggests that such an ability
Journal of Independent Studies and Research – Computing Volume 14 Issue 1 Jan-June 201646
requires mastery of at least four skills, namely information,
communication, strategic and content-creation skills. All
these four skills are to do with the management, utilisation
and creation of content on the digital network. Information
skills relate to the ability to search, select and evaluate infor-
mation, whilst communication skills refer to the ability to
establish contacts, create viable online identities, and the
ability to draw attention and give opinions .
Information and communication skills help to create an
appropriate persona on the digital network, and the success or
failure of this has a direct bearing on an individual’s level of
strategic skills, namely the ability to use digital networks to
achieve personal and professional goals. Such skills depend
to a great extent on the extent to which the individual feels at
home in the digital network environment, as well as the power
relationships amongst the individuals making up the network.
In normal society individuals experience varying
degrees of social stratification based on gender, ethnicity,
religion, and social and economic status. As society migrates
to the digital domain, it is likely that such stratifications are
likely to be replicated in the digital domain. After all, the
digital domain becomes the main forum for social and
economic interaction, and agents who are dominant in the real
world will want to extend their dominance to the digital
world. For instance, in a paternalistic society, privileged
males may be inclined to assert their privilege over women,
those who hold political and economic power may seek to
maintain their hold over the instruments of socio-economic
However, digital networks should not be viewed as just
digital replicas of physical socio-economic networks. They
complement these networks, and also open up completely
new channels of communication and interaction. For
instance, whilst physical social networks may be constrained
by physical artefacts such as country borders, digital
networks easily extent beyond these physical boundaries.
Such characteristics make it virtually impossible for social
agents in an existing social network to maintain the same
level of leverage and control over the same social agents
when they move to the digital domain. For instance, whereas
it is relatively easy to control access to information and
communication in physical social networks, this is considera-
bly much more difficult in a networked environment as
evidenced by how the authorities in Egypt failed to put down
the “Arab Spring” revolution in that country .
The ability to create content on digital networks gives
individuals the ability to influence opinion and to profit from
this. For instance, a person who sets up a blog can end up
influencing a sizeable proportion of the population, and this
may lead to recognition and heightened social status. How-
ever, if content creation is primarily the preserve of social
elites, then digital networks may lead to social inequality
being accentuated. On the other hand, if content creation is
primarily the reserve of low-status people, then digital
domains may lead to a narrowing of social inequality.
Blank  analyzed internet content creation by a
random sample (N=1498) of British internet users in 2011.
With regard to creative content, including blogs, personal
websites, stories and poetry, social status had no effect at all.
Existing elites and low status individuals were just as likely as
not to create creative content. However, he discovered that
non-elites were more likely to create social and entertainment
content, whilst the elites were more likely to generate politi-
cal content. Specifically, political content tends to be the
preserve of highly educated people, whilst social entertain-
ment and is more common amongst low status social groups.
Blank concluded from this data that digital networks were
likely to enhance the status and mobility chances of low status
individuals who created social and entertainment content. In
contrast, digital networks were more likely to constrict the
However, as Dyson  observes, the introduction of
technology into a society is likely to transform the society in
unanticipated ways as well. For instance, he gives an example
of how the advent of the internet transformed rural areas by
enabling social elites to move out into the countryside and
establish their businesses there. This had the effect of raising
property prices in the countryside, thereby bringing about a
positive impact in the economic circumstances of rural
people. In the same light, 5G, alongside the IoT, has the
potential to transform society in hitherto unknown ways. It is
quite possible that some socio-economic attributes that give
competitive advantages today may lose their relevance, and
other socio-economic attributes may emerge as new forms of
competitive advantage. Like all new technologies, 5G will
bring immense socio-economic changes that have the poten-
tial to significantly redraw current social structures.
5G promises significant economic advantages and
considerable social progress. Coupled with the Internet of
Things, it is beyond doubt that 5G will alleviate poverty in
those countries that adopt it, as well as reducing social
inequality through democratising social opportunities. This is
likely to lead to improved quality of life for all. However, 5G
also has the potential to substantially reorganise society as we
know it. Social transformation involves the unmaking of
social elites and the making of new social elites in their place.
As such, social transformation is always a painful process, no
IV. CONCLUDING REMARKS
matter how desirable. The challenge for political leaders and
policy makers is to anticipate the likelihood of social transfor-
mation and to mitigate any trauma associated with it.
5G stands to give an economic advantage to those coun-
tries that adopt it first, and whilst economic competition may
not be a zero-sum game, it’s likely that late adopters are likely
to significantly lose out economically and socially. In gener-
al technologies tend to be developed for the economic elite.
Consequently, it is very likely that the more economically
developed countries are more likely to implement 5G first.
After all, most of the research towards 5G is taking place
predominantly in the developed countries. Hence, this has the
potential to widen the economic gap between well developed
and least- developed countries. However, this is not a
cast-iron rule, and nimble and deft least developed countries
can take the opportunity to leap-frog over their more econom-
ically developed counterparts.
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Journal of Independent Studies and Research – Computing Volume 14 Issue 1 Jan-June 2016 47