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Post offices could be the new edge of 5G networks – report

A new report by the inspector general of the US Postal Service lays out a detailed and compelling proposal for how the 228-year-old government agency could play a major role in the deployment of 5G.

The US Postal Service Office of Inspector General (OIG) "concluded that there may be an opportunity to leverage the Postal Service's network of over 31,000 facilities nationwide," the agency wrote.

Across its 24-page report, the OIG offers a number of proposals, including:

  • Putting 5G cell towers on top of post offices nationwide
  • Running fiber backhaul through post offices and into 5G cell towers
  • Offering free public Wi-Fi services in post offices in rural areas
  • Hosting edge computing data centers inside post offices
  • Supporting public safety communications via post offices
  • Having postal workers collect data on broadband availability

"As policymakers turn their attention to funding and promoting the deployment of 5G and broadband infrastructure, they can consider ways to cost-effectively leverage the Postal Service's nationwide network," wrote the OIG. "By playing a broader role in 5G and broadband deployment, the Postal Service would further its foundational mission to bind the nation together."

Importantly, the report notes that a handful of post offices across the country are already engaged in the rollout of 5G. According to the report, 62 postal facilities lease space to cell tower companies, bringing $1.4 million in annual revenue. "There may be opportunities to expand these agreements to support rising demand for 5G antenna deployment," the report speculates.

That's particularly intriguing in rural areas, where lawmakers have bemoaned the digital divide amid a pandemic forcing workers and students to stay home.

"OIG analysis found that there are 2,364 USPS facilities located within census blocks that are unserved or underserved in terms of broadband connectivity," according to the report.

But that's just the beginning. The report discusses the potential of other technologies including edge computing, and how post offices nationwide might play a role.

"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 OIG wrote.

Such a suggestion would pair a government agency that traces its origins to Benjamin Franklin with a cutting-edge trend in the telecommunications sector. Already operators ranging from AT&T to Dish Network have speculated on the possibility of running their software-powered, cloud-based, virtualized network functions in public or private edge computing locations around the country, thus speeding the delivery of services to nearby customers. The US Postal Service, with tens of thousands of offices around the country, including in some of the most rural and hard-to-reach locations, could well provide the kind of security, power and prices that operators are looking for.

The report by the USPS inspector general lands at an interesting time. Lawmakers across the political spectrum have been loudly discussing the "race to 5G" between the US and China, sparking a wide range of proposals – from financing R&D to suggesting a US government purchase of Nokia or Ericsson – to improve the position of the US.

On the other side, the Trump administration has taken a decidedly antagonistic position toward the USPS, and lengthy reports on the situation have tied Trump's interest in the agency to issues ranging from cost savings to voter suppression to Trump's personal feelings about Amazon and Jeff Bezos.

"The stakes could not be higher as the USPS continues to lose billions of dollars while Americans continue to struggle to connect to the Internet. With the right digital policies in place, improved USPS finances and digital connectivity could go hand in hand. Americans can finally get connected…with a little help from the post office," wrote Ross Marchand, a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, in a recent opinion piece.

"By participating in this important [5G] endeavor, the Postal Service would take fullest advantage of its vast infrastructure and further cement its already critically important role in American life," the OIG wrote.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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