In Descanso, 40 miles east of San Diego in the foothills of the Cuyamaca Mountains, internet service is iffy, patchy - and pricey. Residents don't see that changing any time soon.
The 5G battles being waged around the county aren't likely to arrive here, either. But other things have changed. In addition to wildfire worries and ordinary emergencies, many locals have had to face stay-at-home orders without reliable internet.
A digital divide exists even within the small community of about 1660 people.
"Half the town has AT&T U-verse available, the rest of us have whatever we can afford," says Kerry Forrest. "I have to stress that many people cannot afford the cost of satellite TV, satellite wifi and cellular systems."
Forrest, who serves as chair of the Descanso Community planning group, has to pay about $500 per month to keep all three options going. Satellite service sufficient for watching video costs $150 a month. A service costing roughly half as much provided only 25mbs "and was useless for any meetings or streaming applications."
Some residents sit outside the library and tap into the public wifi system. Others have lost their landlines, and in areas where cellular is unavailable, they enjoy no communication service, Forrest wrote in comments submitted for the county's draft small cell (5G) ordinance.
The Cedar Fire, one of the largest in state history, burned through the area in 2003. When there is a fire, cell towers go down and anyone without a generator with satellite service is cut off. Now, SDG&E outages to prevent fires often cause a lack of connectivity.
"In a fire or SDG&E system shutdown, if you don't have back-up energy sources such as solar batteries or a gas generator, you are in real isolation."
As the county developed its small cell wireless zoning ordinance last summer for the 5G rollout, the Descanso Community Planning Group offered support for fewer restrictions. Not because they have fewer concerns about aesthetics or possible health risks than other towns. They're just tired of the gaps, void and crawl.
"Our rural community strongly supports the development of wireless and optical fiber infrastructure in our community," their letter said. "Currently Descanso residents have very few choices for reliable cellular service as well as high speed affordable internet and wifi."
Several years ago, fiber optic cable – which is used to support 5G – was installed on old highway 80 that runs from I-8 up the highway towards Pine Valley, Forrest says. "We were hoping it would bring broadband to our rural communities."
But Forrest doubts that having lots of antennas clustered beside homes, so-called small cells, will even work in the backcountry. The range of the antenna would likely require one every few hundred feet "and that is not how our communities are laid out."
If you post antennae on every pole where needed they would serve only a handful of residents, he says, as the houses are usually only off the road, not in blocks or high density.
According to AT&T, 5G is already available in Descanso, but not in the form of antennas clustered next to homes, which cities can expect. AT&T now has two types of 5G in San Diego, says Suzanne Trantow, lead PR manager for AT&T corporate communications.
"AT&T 5G is live for consumers" in places that include Descanso, Trantow says. "It's deployed on traditional cell towers only and covers larger geographic areas."
The other, 5G+, is live in parts of San Diego and other cities. It’s deployed in densely populated areas like downtown San Diego or entertainment zones, she says. It's the kind that uses small cells, usually on utility poles or streetlamps, placed close together because they have a shorter reach and smaller coverage area.
To tap into the 5G network out in Descanso requires a 5G capable mobile device, like a phone or tablet – and an address that actually gets service.