Improving the reach and reliability of digital broadband into rural areas, including farm operations in less densely populated parts of the country, remains a challenge.

But a potentially cost-effective solution outlined in a new report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange division suggests that wireless network sharing could be an affordable way to expand digital coverage.

As explained by Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist with CoBank, network sharing involves multiple wireless operators sharing radio equipment on a wireless tower to provide connectivity to their respective customers. 

Network sharing is a way for national wireless operators to reduce their network cost structure in rural America. The average cost of a new tower can cost upwards of $200,000 for a single company. Splitting the cost among 3 companies would allow operators to provide coverage in rural areas at a third of the cost, Johnston says.

One of the primary benefits for the farm equipment dealers would be increased market opportunity to expand precision product and service revenue.

“For example, the cost barriers coming down for the large operators to provide 5G coverage, you would expect to see the addressable market go up, hopefully significantly for dealers and for service providers in precision ag to be able to provide services into a larger market.”

Johnston also acknowledges the solution has barriers to getting widespread buy in, including a potential reluctance by large tower owners to allow network sharing because less equipment on a tower equates to less revenue for operators.