Can 5G home internet get more of rural America online?

Robin Layton

Sep 22, 2023 — 5 min read

Feds seek input on firing up the $9B 5G Fund for Rural America program.

An aerial view of farmlands in Warren County, New Jersey. The Delaware Water Gap can be seen as a distant dip between the hills on the top of the frame.

The lack of fast internet – or any internet at all – in rural America is certainly not a new concern, but it is a worrisome and valid topic for the 14 million households and businesses affected, the federal government, internet service providers and many more stakeholders.

Fortunately, some positive movement exists to ease the lack of rural broadband availability. On Sept. 21, 2023, a paused program was dusted off at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), hoping it would spark 5G service deployment. 

The $9 billion 5G Fund for Rural America was established in 2020 to bring voice and 5G mobile broadband service to rural areas of the country, but the FCC decided to wait on passing out the funds until it could “identify with greater precision those areas of the country where support is most needed.”

This refers to the plan to update the broadband data collection map. The FCC’s improved version was released in November 2022. The map is open for corrections and review to grow its precision reporting.

The FCC reported, “the Commission seeks comment on how to define the areas that will be eligible for support in the 5G Fund Phase I auction and proposes to modify the metric used to accept bids and identify winning bids, in order to target support to places where people live, work, and travel in rural America.”

How will 5G expansion help connect your rural home to the internet?

Most of us are familiar with the 4G and 5G technology that connects our cell phones. Basically, if you are near a tower, you will get that provider’s speed and service on your phone. 

To use the towers for home internet, no wires or cables are required like fiber or cable internet. You only need a receiver from your 5G home internet provider to pick up the nearest tower’s signal.

5G home internet, also known as fixed wireless internet, harnesses that technology to send internet into your home or business within the tower’s range. So, on a basic level, more towers equal more service.

As reported by Forbes, Wells Fargo analysts predict this type of internet connection “will remain ‘the biggest disruptor’ in the market for US broadband through next year, generally gobbling up 80-90% of industrywide net subscriber additions through 2024.”

T-Mobile is a 5G home internet service leader, covering nearly 85% of the country with its $50/mo. plan that offers speeds up to 245 Mbps. 

T-Mobile’s emergence in this area isn’t unexpected since it committed in 2020 as a condition of its merger with Sprint to cover 90% of the U.S. rural areas within six years. The FCC considered this mass deployment when putting the 5G Fund for Rural America on hold. 

Starry is another 5G home internet provider, with speeds up to 200 Mbps starting at $50/mo. Verizon and AT&T also have their own home internet programs.

Federal programs for rural broadband growth

Rural areas are in dire need of internet service. “Unfortunately, 22.3 percent of Americans in rural areas and 27.7 percent of Americans in Tribal lands lack coverage from fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps broadband, as compared to only 1.5 percent of Americans in urban areas,” according to a report by the FCC.

While there are billions of dollars earmarked for bridging the digital divide in the U.S., it will take years for some rural areas to see high-speed internet of 100 Mbps or higher. 

The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program will release over $43 billion to individual states in the next few years. The current administration plans to have “internet for all” by 2030.

There are over 90 federal broadband programs for internet expansion and affordability aid including:

State programs for rural internet expansion

Mississippi, Alaska and West Virginia are the lowest states in internet connectivity. This is due to the remoteness of the areas and the scattered population. “Broadband expansion in West Virginia has been hindered by the cost of extending networks into mountainous rural areas,” according to a report from the state.

State broadband deployments are mostly funded with federal monies from the abovementioned programs. Some states have partnered with broadband providers to handle their rural connection issues on a smaller scale, particularly to fund the “last mile” of serviceability. This is the connection from the main road or cabling area that runs to the structure in need of internet service. 

For example, Maine’s Reach Me program incentivizes internet service providers to complete their existing networks by extending service to all unserved locations in their service areas.

Other rural internet options

5G home internet is not the only viable internet service option to bridge the rural broadband gap. Satellite and fiber internet deployment can also reach underserved or unserved areas of the U.S., in some cases.

About satellite internet

Companies like Starlink are launching satellites to provide speeds from 100 Mbps and higher to remote areas worldwide. Starlink starts at $90/mo., which is a bit steeper than other types of internet service.

The company hopes to expand its current availability of about 75% of the U.S. There are waitlists for some areas in the South and East. 

With nearly 100% availability in the U.S., HughesNet and Viasat are mainstays in the satellite internet game, but their speeds are significantly slower than Starlink’s, starting at 25 Mbps.

About fiber internet

Fiber cables can deliver fast internet with symmetrical download and upload speeds, making it ideal for large households, work-from-home internet users and heavy gamers. 

However, it’s very expensive for internet service providers to install, so putting that infrastructure across hundreds of miles in a rugged rural area is often impossible. In fact, only 37.3% of U.S. homes currently have access to at least one fiber internet provider.

The expensive build-out costs aren’t reflected in consumer pricing, however. Popular fiber providers like AT&T, Google Fiber and Verizon Fios start with industry average prices between $50 and $70/mo. and deliver speeds starting at 300 Mbps. 

Wrapping up

As the FCC moves forward in its plan to offer a 5G Fund Phase I auction for providers, we can assume that more 5G-capable towers will eventually be built in underserved or unserved areas of rural America. Although the infrastructure won’t be in place anytime soon, the $9 billion 5G Fund will connect more people to the internet and provide more mobile phone coverage to those who need it most.

See Allconnect’s News and Research hubs for more broadband guides and information.

Robin Layton

Written by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

Robin Layton is an editor for the broadband marketplace Allconnect. She built her internet industry expertise writing and editing for four years on the site, as well as on Allconnect’s sister site … Read more