Federal Funds, Satellite Rivals Could Expedite Rural 5G Plans

Momentum for broadband expansion brings new opportunities for rural operators

DENVER (May 6, 2021)—5G wireless coverage has expanded significantly in the U.S. over the last several quarters, with T-Mobile leading the pack in urban and rural America. However, rural 5G speeds are noticeably slower than speeds offered in urban markets. While true high-speed 5G in rural America will lag urban and suburban coverage, the potential emergence of Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites as a legitimate broadband alternative could serve as a catalyst to expedite the availability of 5G in rural communities.

According to a new report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange, the potential windfall of government funding for broadband deployment represents multiple opportunities for rural wireless operators. The report examines the current state of 5G, when rural America can expect true high-speed 5G, and what opportunities exist for rural operators as 5G is deployed.

“In rural America, 5G coverage appears to be improving, but the increase in speed is underwhelming,” said Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist with CoBank. “We expect fixed-line broadband networks to garner the largest share of federal financial support but 5G networks will play a role, especially in high-cost, low-population density areas.”

Much has changed since the first 5G phone was launched in the U.S. about two years ago. Sprint and T-Mobile merged with commitments to build out 5G coverage in rural America. Verizon spent an unprecedented amount of money at the C-band auction to support its 5G network build plans. Dish Network is currently in the early stages of building a greenfield nationwide 5G network, and the cable operators are planning to build regional 5G networks.

Fixed wireless over 5G is starting to draw more attention as the national carriers and cable operators have promoted their plans to deploy it. T-Mobile recently announced its home internet service, emphasizing the underserved and unserved in rural and small towns. The network utilizes LTE and 5G spectrum bands and the carrier said that more than 30 million homes are eligible today, with approximately 10 million of those homes in small towns or rural areas.

LEO satellite networks could change how aggressively the national wireless operators build 5G rural coverage. LEO broadband networks are initially targeting rural markets. Proponents believe they are an ideal solution to bridge the digital divide, but at this point it’s far from certain they will succeed.

If LEO satellites show promise as a viable broadband alternative, LEO operators may turn their attention to the lucrative urban and suburban markets. This potential threat could cause the incumbent national operators—cable and wireless—to accelerate their rural plans in attempt to blunt the LEOs’ progress.

For rural America to reap the benefits of high-speed 5G, the networks must operate on mid-band spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission recently made a large swath of mid-band spectrum in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band available for unlicensed use and offered proportional licenses affordable for rural operators. The CBRS band and the rural expansion from the national operators, primarily T-Mobile, offer interesting opportunities for rural operators.

As the technical and cost barriers fall, a growing number of large enterprises are implementing private wireless networks. These custom-built wireless networks can deliver many of the benefits of automation, efficiency and security that 5G promises. For rural operators, designing, building and running private 5G networks could be a new business opportunity.

National wireless operators building out the edge of their 5G networks into rural America will need access to fiber and towers. It’s likely these operators will look for opportunities to partner with rural operators who have infrastructure already in place rather than building their own. This is especially true in the current environment where access to equipment and labor is very tight.

The Biden administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal includes $100 billion for broadband builds in unserved and underserved areas. At this point it’s unclear how much money will be available and who will be eligible, but it’s clear there is bipartisan support to bridge the digital divide.

Watch a video synopsis and read the report, Federal Funds, Satellite Rivals Could Expedite Rural 5G Plans.

About CoBank

CoBank is a $160 billion cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America. The bank provides loans, leases, export financing and other financial services to agribusinesses and rural power, water and communications providers in all 50 states. The bank also provides wholesale loans and other financial services to affiliated Farm Credit associations serving more than 75,000 farmers, ranchers and other rural borrowers in 23 states around the country.

CoBank is a member of the Farm Credit System, a nationwide network of banks and retail lending associations chartered to support the borrowing needs of U.S. agriculture, rural infrastructure and rural communities. Headquartered outside Denver, Colorado, CoBank serves customers from regional banking centers across the U.S. and maintains an international representative office in Singapore.

Media Contacts

Julie Davis
Corporate Communications

Sherry Johnson
Corporate Social Responsibility

Dave Harding
Knowledge Exchange