Could USPS help deliver national 5G?

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Could the original service connecting people and businesses across the United States play a role in furthering the deployment of next-generation 5G connectivity? According to a report from the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General, the answer is yes, and USPS ought to “explore ways to leverage its large physical footprint to facilitate 5G and broadband deployment.”

The report lays out a number of ways that USPS and its over 31,000 leased and owned facilities around the country could potentially play a role in 5G deployment. They range from using postal locations as a home for communications equipment ranging from cellular antennas to edge computing infrastructure, to using USPS vehicles or carriers to collect data on current wired and wireless broadband deployments to build a more accurate picture of the nation’s networks.

The report noted that USPS already leases space for communications infrastructure — but at only 62 locations. “There may be opportunities to expand this program as demand for 5G grows. Federal funding for 5G and broadband deployment could make new sites economically feasible for colocation, including facilities in or near underserved rural and Tribal areas,” the report added.

The report said that an estimated 44 million people live within one mile of a facility owned (not leased) by USPS, which number 8,000 nationwide. Expanding the USPS’ role as a host for telecom infrastructure could also provide additional revenue for the organization, which has struggled with its financial footing, largely due to requirements around funding pension and health benefits for its retired employees. USPS has also been hit hard by falling revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Those 62 telecom sites, it says, bring in $1.4 million in annual revenue.

The report suggests that postal locations could host small cells, rooftop cell sites or even towers at locations with sufficient space, most likely in suburban or rural areas. Such vertical infrastructure could provide cellular or fixed wireless access internet service. The report also says that post offices could serve as co-location points for fiber connections by leasing outdoor ground space, and could lease indoor space for computing resources.

“While not all postal facilities are practical locations for server hosting, some post offices, and the over 280 mail processing facilities, may be able to host edge computing,” the report says. “There may be opportunities for the Postal Service to partner with wireless carriers that are distributing processing components to the edge of their networks. Likewise, as 5G matures, USPS could explore a collaboration with large Internet companies deploying data aggregation servers closer to their users.”

However, the report acknowledged that there are challenges with providing infrastructure locations, one of them being lease restrictions. USPS leases about 76% of its facilities, rather than owning them.

The report says that in addition to facilitating advanced services, using USPS facilities could “help bring broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved rural areas and explore partnerships to foster broadband‑enabled services and access to broadband-related government programs.”

The OIG found there are “several potential partnership opportunities that would allow the Postal Service to help bring high-quality broadband to areas where it is currently lacking.” Those could include post offices serving as “digital hubs” for Wi-Fi access or supporting public safety communications networks, or it could mean simple promotion of broadband-related government services. “While these efforts would not generate significant revenue and would require partnerships, they would make USPS’s abundant infrastructure even more valuable to the nation and its citizens, consistent with the Postal Service’s public service mission,” the OIG concluded.

Depending on how large and active USPS’ role ends up being, the report said, “Such an undertaking would serve to further cement the Postal Service’s already critically important role in American life.”

Read the full report here. 

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