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A look at what 5G means for public safety and what you need to know

02 Mar 2022 7:55 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Dale Stockton

Wireless connectivity facilitates fast, effective communication and 5G is where mobile networks are headed next. Few technologies have received as much attention as 5G, but we are just beginning to realize the ways that public safety is likely to benefit. Officer safety and effectiveness depend on fast, uninterrupted access to critical applications and data no matter the assignment, whether it’s a rapidly evolving tactical situation or a search and rescue operation during a natural disaster. With 5G, data transfer rates will significantly increase, and latency will be substantially reduced. This means high volumes of data can be delivered in near real-time and overall situational awareness will be expanded and improved significantly.

Some examples of areas that are likely to utilize 5G include real-time video feeds for evolving critical incidents, facilitated emergency response based on timely assessment of vehicle location and routing (green wave), and live-streamed, on-demand, body-worn camera feeds during an emergency. Expansive single-pane-of-glass command centers will be able to display levels and quality of information that dramatically improve decision making.

Making a difference with sensors

Another area where 5G has great potential is in sensor utilization, and there is a unique aspect that merits consideration for public safety tech planners, especially within the context of smart cities. Orthogonal sensor cueing refers to a situation where one sensor tells a second sensor to execute an action or initiate a process. Conventional 4G transmissions can introduce a degree of latency during which a situation could change and make the action of the second sensor inconsequential. Imagine a ground sensor that detects vibration and notifies a pan/tilt/zoom camera to move to the affected area. With low-latency 5G, the subject is captured on video in near real-time and the image can be immediately reviewed (by a human or AI-assisted video analysis) for criteria such as carrying an object or being armed with a long gun. In this example, any significant degree of latency could result in missing potentially critical information. Suffice it to say that 5G will allow for a much wider deployment of integrated and intelligent sensor networks that will help public safety professionals operate proactively and mitigate risk.

Important considerations regarding 5G  

As public safety agencies consider the wide array of potential use cases, it’s instructive to understand the different frequency bands that comprise 5G. There are three general bands of 5G frequency - low, mid, and high. Unless you’re a communications engineer, this is an area that can be confusing and it’s important to not focus solely on the incredible data transfer rates made possible by the high-band frequencies of millimeter-wave (mmWave) transmissions. Although mmWave can deliver incredible speeds, it has limitations. It does not effectively penetrate structures or other physical objects such as glass or even trees, and it has very limited range. This means that the use of mmWave technology is most appropriate for situations like a large stadium where the density of mobile devices is extremely high or on an open street corner with very heavy pedestrian traffic.  

At the other end of the 5G spectrum is low-band, also commonly known as the “coverage layer” because it is used to deploy substantial 5G coverage effectively across large areas. This is the approach used by T-Mobile to leverage the 600MHz spectrum nationwide and has resulted in the nation’s largest 5G network. A low-band cell site can cover hundreds of square miles. It’s also very effective at passing through buildings and is a practical and effective way to provide solid coverage to rural areas that previously lacked effective broadband coverage. Critical incidents can happen anywhere, including small rural communities. T-Mobile’s rollout of 5G to these underserved areas is commendable and will allow many agencies to effectively leverage cellular technology to improve operational capabilities.

In between the high and low-band layers is, not surprisingly, the mid-band spectrum and it delivers long range for broad coverage. Mid-band offers a balance of speed, capacity, coverage, and penetration that’s especially suited for densely populated urban areas where connectivity demand is high. This is why mid-band has often been called the “sweet spot” spectrum and it is especially well suited for many public safety operations.

T-Mobile’s high-capacity wireless network utilizes both mid-band 2.5 GHz and low-band 600 MHz frequencies to deliver broad reach with signals that can penetrate structures and provide data transfer rates that are substantially faster than 4G networks. The vast amount of spectrum and wider set of spectrum bands available to be stacked together are unique to 5G, allowing network flexibility and effective functionality in a variety of operational environments.

The largest network advantage

After the recent merger with Sprint, T-Mobile has a great variety of spectrum across all three bands, with significant holdings in the low- and mid-bands needed to deliver 5G far and wide. These are the same 5G bands that will be most beneficial to public safety. The potential is clear: first responder agencies will have the opportunity to expand operational capabilities and improve overall information access and exchange. Although it won’t occur overnight, many areas of public safety will be impacted in a positive way and it’s likely that 5G will be transformational, with new capabilities emerging as agencies begin to leverage opportunities made possible by this new generation of wireless networks.

You can learn more about how public safety agencies are improving operational effectiveness and the T-Mobile Connecting Heroes program designed just for first responders by visiting the T-Mobile for Government web site.

About the Author

Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, California. He taught criminal justice classes for more than 20 years and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Law Officer Magazine and Stockton is the founder of Below 100, an award-winning officer-safety initiative designed to reduce police line-of-duty deaths and has been involved in the presentation of the program across North America. Stockton is an accomplished technology practitioner and has managed major technology projects for public safety including personnel-locate devices, license plate recognition systems, and regional deployment of smartphones.  

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