wireless tower from the top

According to a new report from CoBank, Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites could serve as a catalyst to expedite the availability of 5G in rural communities.

“In rural America, 5G coverage appears to be improving, but the increase in speed is underwhelming,” said Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist with CoBank, in a prepared statement.

Fixed wireless over 5G is beginning to draw more attention, the report notes, pointing to the example of T-Mobile, which has announced a home internet service using the LTE and 5G spectrum bands to make service available to 30 million homes, one third of which are in rural and small towns.

But CoBank sees LEO operators as having the strongest focus on serving rural America.

And as CoBank noted in a press release: “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 [an] attempt to blunt the LEOs’ progress.”

Government subsidies, including the $100 billion included in the Biden infrastructure proposal, could help fuel rural 5G, but CoBank is skeptical about how much of that funding will go toward 5G.

“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,’ the press release said.

Other observations from the CoBank rural 5G report:

  • Mid-band spectrum will be critical for rural 5G to succeed, with a large swath of it recently being made available by the Federal Communications Commission.
  • National wireless operators deploying service into rural America will need access to fiber and towers and will likely look for opportunities to partner with rural operators to meet those needs, as the rural operators already have fiber and towers in place.

Faster wireless speeds and telemedicine are the top desired benefits of rural 5G, according to recent research.

Joan Engebretson contributed to this report.

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