At a time when U.S. Postal Service revenues are in decline and some have questioned its future viability, the organization is looking for ways to monetize or to enhance the value its assets – and some of those assets could play a role in supporting broadband deployment in unserved rural areas, according to a new report from the U.S. Postal Service.
The report also suggests that USPS facilities might be good location points for 5G antennas, particularly for small cell deployments. It suggests using larger USPS facilities, such as the service’s 280 mail processing facilities, as edge computing locations. And it poses the possibility that postal workers might be able to play a role in gathering more accurate broadband availability data.
Postal Service Rural Broadband Options
As for rural broadband, the report envisions USPS facilities being used as neutral antenna colocation sites for fixed wireless and as fiber optic cable connection points. In addition, they might act as “digital hubs,” providing a central location for public connectivity to Wi-Fi and might house kiosks to support telehealth or to enable low-income residents to sign up for discounted communications through the FCC Lifeline program.
Another suggested use of rural USPS facilities is to provide antennas for FirstNet or other public safety networks.
USPS has over 31,000 facilities nationwide, including 8,423 that it owns rather than leases. Of these, 2,364 facilities, including 393 that USPS owns, are in census blocks that have only partial or no availability of broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.
While the USPS-owned facilities would be the easiest to leverage to support rural broadband, it may be possible in some cases for leased facilities to be used for the same purpose, according to the report.
USPS also might play a role in supporting the FCC Community Connect program that provides funding to establish community centers with computers and broadband connectivity, the report notes. Some Community Connect funding recipients have had to erect new buildings to serve as community centers – an expense that might be eliminated by using a USPS facility.
Regarding broadband availability data, the report notes that “the FCC’s current maps of broadband deployment do not always match the actual coverage experienced by some consumers” and that “the Postal Service’s reach to nearly all neighborhoods in the nation makes it a valuable resource in solving data collection issues.” According to the USPS report, the Broadband DATA Act, signed into law earlier this year, requires the FCC to test the feasibility of a partnership with the Postal Service to facilitate ongoing collection of broadband deployment data.
The report notes that the equipment needed to drive test mobile coverage can cost $30,000 per vehicle and that a more economical alternative might be to equip mail carriers with mobile apps on cellphones or the handheld mobile delivery device scanners used by the mail carriers. The apps would not provide the detailed information available through drive testing but would capture mobile signal speed and quality.
At a time when some rural post offices are threatened with closure, perhaps finding additional uses for those facilities could help some stay open. And while not all the ideas in the USPS report may ultimately prove feasible, it’s good to see that someone is thinking about where they might find some win-win situations involving the postal service and rural broadband.