At this time, 5G technology is still finding its feet, but it has already proven its value in several life-saving situations.
The first moments following an emergency are often the most critical. Whether due to floods, fires, household accidents or acts of war, victims stand a greater chance of survival when first responders are informed quickly and completely of what has happened.
The nation’s emergency-response networks increasingly rely on wireless communication, but some regions of the country have historically been poorly served by wireless networks. Not all incidents occur in places that are well-connected to a wireless grid network. The advent of 5G promises to represent a major step forward in improving emergency communications if we choose to make it so.
How 4G has fallen behind
4G is a set of standards defining fourth-generation broadband cellular network technology. It replaced 3G, whose first commercial usage occurred in South Korea in 2006. The 4G standard has since been implemented globally, delivering speeds upward of 100 Mbps, far exceeding 3G’s 14-Mbps limitation.
This improvement satisfied an increasing demand for the speedy transfer of text-based information or simple sound-package data including phone calls. But as the quality of such data increased, average file sizes did as well, to the point that even 100 Mbps is no longer enough in some situations. The existing communication standard has failed to support quick transfer rates for high-quality video and other complex telecommunication services needed in emergencies.
When seconds count, what matters most is the speed of the connection and the latency represented by each message’s travel time. Typical 4G latencies range from 60 ms to 100 ms. Emergencies require immediate decisions and the rapid transmission of complex data across a tightly packed network of vehicles, operators, and responders. A lag of just 1 ms can mean the difference between life and death. That’s where 5G will come in.
5th generation wireless
5G is the fastest broadband wireless signal yet and offers ultra-low latency under 1 ms. It tracks its transfer rates in gigabits, not megabits, and is more than 100 times faster than 4G in ideal situations. 5G supports three bands: a lower band of <1Ghz, a mid-band below 6GHz, and a high-frequency band, also known as the mmWave band, of 24GHz and up. This band-splitting enables massive network capacity, ultra-low latency and multi-Gbps data rates. The newly introduced 5G next-generation radio, or New Radio, interface enables a higher degree of scalability and flexibility for the network operators than comparable 4G devices.
5G is being built intentionally to support certain technologies aligned with public safety sectors, including sensors and mission-critical communications for medical procedures. Devices like remote-controlled surgical robots, emergency drones and ultra-low latency mission-critical communication are possible only when connected via 5G.
How 5G stands to make a difference
Right now, 5G has only been rolled out to select areas—roughly 100 cities in the U.S.—and its coverage lags significantly behind 4G. At this time, 5G technology is still finding its feet, but it has already proven its value in several life-saving situations, including reducing emergency-response times to real-time levels.
Crime detection and surveillance can also be improved with the instant transfer of crucial video and audio recordings. The recent New York subway shooting was resolved within a day; 5G surveillance may have reduced that time to a matter of hours or even minutes.
The instant relay of surveillance footage can be used in many other applications, for example detecting fires, hazardous leaks and electrical problems. It can even be integrated into motor vehicles to alert first responders more quickly to car crashes and to help prevent and resolve car thefts.
What are the challenges to adopting 5G?
As with most new technologies, many potential adopters have been slow to switch over to 5G. Legacy 4G networks are still functional and will remain so for some time to come. Replacing them entirely is an expensive proposition in the short term, and the long-term benefits of latency-free communication do not quite tip the scale for most industries. A slow rollout in high-use areas is necessary to properly adjust the communications environment to new technology. But as prudent as they may be for business, slow rollouts aren’t good for emergency responders.
The Department of Homeland Security is currently looking at implementing 5G technology on a large scale as soon as possible, and it expects to make public safety workers among the first to use the new standard. Sridhar Kowdley, program manager for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, is currently examining 5G’s potential to address public safety concerns. His review contemplates a complete overhaul of the systems currently in place, down to emergency-response training.
Quicker transmission of greater volumes of data might prove to be an issue for operators and dispatchers who find themselves already handling a massive stream of information from individuals and automated security systems. With the right training and operational protocols in place, richer data streams including high-resolution pictures, videos and verified text messages, can help operators and dispatchers work more efficiently, keeping phone lines open for other uses.
The main challenge facing first responders and other public safety workers is the implementation itself, not a wholesale change to the way they do their jobs. Because 5G is new, it is not widespread. The places where it is in use have seen marked improvements in emergency technical care and decision making. Training is absolutely essential here. 5G technology in use is similar enough to 4G technology, but running the network itself requires new administrative tools and techniques that operators will need to master.
Finally, we need to address the complexity and variations of 5G deployments. Each telecom carrier across the world will end up using different bands of 5G, and this variety leads to variations in deployments. The risks attendant to these variations can be best addressed by developing a standard framework for mission-critical 5G systems that can be adopted by all vendors, carriers and public safety agencies. This standard framework will minimize the time and capital spent on addressing custom network design, scalability and reliability issues that may arise in the wake of widespread 5G implementation.
It is quite early for 5G. Once we have overcome certain hurdles, the tools needed to save more lives will be in the hands of informed professionals who will stand ready to make full use of its promise.
5G is revolutionizing technology the same way 4G did, and the public-safety sector should be ready to embrace it. Each cadre of our existing public safety infrastructure, from first responders and dispatchers through to network professionals, should be given the tools and training they need to deliver on the promise of latency-free emergency communication. As we continue to build surgical robots, emergency drones, and smart emergency vehicles for our first responders, we must remember that they can only save lives as fast as the underlying network they use to communicate during emergencies.
Prathamesh Khedekar is a technical product operations manager at Creospan.