Postal Service wants to get in on 5G rollouts

5G is not often mentioned in unison with the U.S. Postal Service, but it’s a topic the agency is investigating and sees opportunity for post offices to play a role in 5G deployments.

A September report (PDF) from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently released and first spotted by Light Reading found there may be opportunity to use its large-scale post office network to serve as sites for 5G infrastructure, or even lease out indoor space to host servers for edge computing.  

“The Postal Service could directly support 5G deployment by leveraging its physical infrastructure for the colocation of towers, antennas, and other communications equipment. These opportunities would not require the Postal Service to start from scratch; rather, it could build on existing arrangements whereby space is leased for telecommunications infrastructure,” the report stated.

The Postal Service has more than 31,000 facilities across the U.S., of which 8,000 are owned, with the remaining leased. According to the report, an estimated 44 million people live within one mile of a postal-owned facility.

When it comes to sites affixing antennas and small cells on top of buildings, industry analyst Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, suggested it’s an obvious move that the USPS should have already been taking advantage of.

“[USPS] should have put any G cell tower and antenna on top of post offices – it’s prime real estate,” Entner told Fierce Wireless. “It’s an opportunity, finally they are monetizing things that they should.”

And, according to the report, it already has to some degree. The OIG said there’s already existing agreements with tower companies to lease space at 62 postal locations, generating $1.4 million in revenue per year.

As Entner noted, that comes to about $22,500 per site per year or around $1,880 in revenue per month. “It’s revenue that comes in the door for USPS,” he said. Those already deployed are likely at prime locations, whereas rural sites probably generate around $1,200 or so, he added.

Edge compute less likely

Other opportunities outlined in the report include leasing space for edge computing, helping with public safety networks and utilizing postal workers for broadband data collection, some of which may be less likely to gain traction.

“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. There may be opportunities for the Postal Service to partner with wireless carriers that are distributing processing components to the edge of their networks,” the report stated, noting the need to assess feasibility and identify which locations could meet the space, power and connectivity needs, as well as consumer proximity.

While technically possible, Entner suggested the need is likely low, categorizing the idea for post offices hosting edge compute as “very aspirational” considering the amount of locations required.

“The speed of light is 300 miles per millisecond, so you only need an edge computing server every 300 miles,” he noted. Even if, say, all of the USPS-owned facilities were viable to host servers, “we don’t need 8,000 edge server locations.”

Verizon and Amazon Web Services recently deployed 5G edge compute in three cities, with 10 planned by year’s end.

RELATED: Verizon and AWS bring mobile edge compute to 3 more cities

The OIG report pointed to additional potential for partnering on public safety networks, particularly to expand AT&T’s FirstNet. It also cited possibly using postal workers to help collect network and broadband data, although the technical and logistical matters remained murky.

“I admire the zeal, I just doubt the need,” Entner said. Still, he said there’s no doubt that outdoor infrastructure like antenna deployments atop post offices both work and have interest.

Potential in rural areas 

Where the Postal Service could make an impact is extending services to rural and unserved areas.

As noted in the report, that isn’t exclusive to 5G and could apply to 4G LTE. OIG’s analysis identified roughly 2,364 postal facilities that are within census blocks un- or underserved by broadband, 393 of which are USPS owned.

“[USPS] might be a big winner when it comes to the drive to build out rural America,” Entner said. “There they could play a very important role.”

While economics of deploying infrastructure in rural areas is one factor holding back rollouts, recent government initiatives and carrier commitments could help accelerate the push. The FCC in April moved forward on a Rural 5G Fund, which would distribute up to $9 billion over 10 years for 5G deployments in rural areas.

Another factor OIG cited is T-Mobile’s commitment to deploy 5G service covering 90% of rural Americans within six years, a pledge tied to the approval of its merger with Sprint.

The report did highlight some challenges and limitations for helping with 5G deployments, including: legal and financial feasibility of deploying infrastructure on leased facilities; the physical condition of some postal services and the responsibility of ensuring physical security of 5G gear; permitting challenges and local aesthetic concerns about densely deployed 5G antennas.