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Truly national 5G? It’ll take an extra $36 billion and another 37k sites, CCA report estimates

A new estimate from CCA and CostQuest pegs the cost of deploying 5G in places that carriers are unlikely to build out commercially

What would it take to cover the entire geographic United States with 5G, beyond the commercial coverage that is already planned?

About $36 billion and another 37,000 sites, according to a new estimate on 5G ubiquity commissioned by the Competitive Carriers Association.

While the three largest mobile network operators are already claiming “nationwide” 5G coverage based on population coverage, it’s an entirely different distinction to cover all of the geographic areas of the United States. A new study commissioned by CCA estimates that it will take an additional $36 billion in government and private investment in order to ensure ubiquitous 5G coverage in areas that mobile network operators are unlikely to build out without subsidies.

CostQuest Associates developed the national network cost model in the study. In a CCA press briefing on Friday, President and CEO of CostQuest Jim Stegeman noted that the company has developed a number of national network cost models that have been used by the Federal Communications Commission in the past on both a wired and wireless basis, including to inform the Connect America Fund and determining the reserve price for the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund; the company has also over the years developed models estimating the costs of ubiquitous 3G, 4G and 5G coverage.

CCA commissioned the update to CostQuest’s 5G ubiquity study “to help determine a realistic budget to meet the aspirations of the 5G Fund” and offer up a cost model based on real-world data to “truly bring ubiquitous 5G coverage to rural America — to all of America,” according to CCA President and CEO Steve Berry.

Berry noted that the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (which is expected to be signed into law today) will make historic investments in fixed broadband access to help close the digital divide.

“But closing the digital divide is not complete without access to mobile connectivity,” Berry continued, adding, “The reality is that nationwide 5G availability is not inevitable for all Americans, particularly those in rural America.”

The Federal Communications Commission has already made rural 5G access a funding priority, setting aside $9 billion for a Rural 5G Fund last year and starting to shift Universal Service Fund support toward 5G deployment. However, that funding was put in place before new, more accurate broadband and wireless mapping efforts come to fruition, which Democrats on the FCC pointed out at the time.

The CostQuest study model “determines that the current budget for the 5G Fund is inadequate and additional support is needed to ensure all consumers – and not just those who will be covered by currently planned private investment – have access to ubiquitous 5G. The FCC should use existing funding budgeted for High Cost support to set a 5G Fund budget sufficient to accomplish this critical priority,” Berry said.

The CostQuest model looks at unserved areas, based on the latest LTE coverage maps from the FCC combined with information on roads and areas across the country. It estimates that about 37,000 new coverage sites will be needed to get 5G to all but a few, very remote areas of the United States — and most of those will be new towers, at a cost of approximately $1 million per site, Stegeman explained in the briefing.

“Based on engineering principles, real-world costs, and the most recent 4G LTE coverage data submitted by the four largest carriers, [CostQuest] has determined that the additional cost to ensure access to ubiquitous 5G for all Americans – and not just those who will be covered by currently planned private investment – is $36 billion,” the report concludes.

The report and the cost model methodology can be read here.

The CostQuest study model “determines that the current budget for the 5G Fund is inadequate and additional support is needed to ensure all consumers – and not just those who will be covered by currently planned private investment – have access to ubiquitous 5G. The FCC should use existing funding budgeted for High Cost support to set a 5G Fund budget sufficient to accomplish this critical priority,” Berry said.

For the first time,
the release of the CostQuest National 5G model provides rigorous, real-world analysis
demonstrating the total investment of private capital and government resources needed to
achieve ubiquitous 5G coverage where carriers are unlikely to deploy absent support: $36 billion.
There is no doubt that we are at a key moment in our country to support broadband
deployment.

Even as
policymakers focus on closing the digital divide, providing connectivity only through fixed
services risks creating a new divide – the 5G gap – in which the ubiquitous mobile services
powered by 5G networks will drive economic growth in some parts of the nation but not in
others.

While the promise of life with ubiquitous 5G raises exciting possibilities, the reality is
that nationwide 5G availability is not inevitable, particularly in rural America. And while wireless
carriers and infrastructure providers are investing billions of dollars to deploy 5G to the same
regions and markets that always are first to benefit from new technologies, the lessons from
previous generations of wireless services–from 1G cellular service to 4G LTE–teach us that
without timely and properly targeted public support, we will fall short of the goal of nationwide
availability. And as too often happens, rural and other vulnerable communities will be the ones
left behind.

Based on engineering
principles, real-world costs, and the most recent 4G LTE coverage data submitted by the four
largest carriers, CQA has determined that the additional cost to ensure access to
ubiquitous 5G for all Americans – and not just those who will be covered by currently planned
private investment – is $36 billion.

ABOUT AUTHOR

Kelly Hill
Kelly Hill
Kelly reports on network test and measurement, as well as the use of big data and analytics. She first covered the wireless industry for RCR Wireless News in 2005, focusing on carriers and mobile virtual network operators, then took a few years’ hiatus and returned to RCR Wireless News to write about heterogeneous networks and network infrastructure. Kelly is an Ohio native with a masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on science writing and multimedia. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian and The Canton Repository. Follow her on Twitter: @khillrcr

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