Serving a broad range of socioeconomic strata for information services has long been a notable goal. Beginning in the 1830s, the UK’s General Post Office implemented a flat-rate postage system, enabling cost-effective service to remote communities. A century later in the United States, the Communications Act of 1934 created the FCC, to “make available so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, rapid, efficient, nationwide, and world-wide wire and radio communication services with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.” Nearly a century later, the first pillar of the FCC’s most recent strategic plan is “Closing the Digital Divide,” which reduces costs for implementing broadband and provides incentives for service providers to support remote areas.
Since those initial efforts, various governmental and multinational initiatives have been pursued around the world, including both public initiatives, from the United Nations International Telecommunications Union and other organizations that consider broadband a human right, and private enterprise initiatives that target underserved communities (for example, satellite services like SpaceX’s Starlink and Google/Alphabet’s now discontinued high-altitude, balloon-based Project Loon).
While universal broadband access for communications or computing via terrestrial or satellite services is a laudable goal, it is not enough to keep pace with recent and emerging developments in mobile cellular communications, such as 5G and 6G, nor with the accelerating deployment of applications such as smart cities, safe corridors, increased video capture and analysis, and artificial intelligence.
Many of these applications degrade as latency increases, and moreover, costs increase as additional bandwidth on backhaul networks is used. As a result, even with universal broadband access, serving applications from centralized cloud services can cause critically needed applications to be infeasible due to performance or economic concerns.
For example, consider a noble goal like Vision Zero, which has the objective of reducing vehicular traffic fatalities to zero. Such a goal requires a multifaceted approach that includes safer vehicle designs, lower speed limits, better self-driving sensors and algorithms for autonomous vehicles, and the like. One important capability is low-latency vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-roadside infrastructure coupled with vehicle-to-pedestrian communications. 5G networks can reduce the latency of these communications, but the necessary data processing to manage vehicle and pedestrian locations and rapidly identify issues, such as an upcoming collision, is best done locally, rather than adding tens or hundreds of milliseconds by processing that data remotely and braking when it is too late.