What Would 5G Technology Mean For Government?

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The next big leap forward for cellular phone service is approaching.

The next big leap forward for cellular phone service, which is being called 5G because it’s the fifth generation of the technology, is rapidly approaching. That’s probably obvious from the many commercials being shown by service providers promising fast networks that can deliver applications previously impossible under 4G—depending on where a person lives and their access to the new networks. The truth is that 5G is going to be a pretty big deal, and the government needs to make sure that it’s one of the first organizations to come onboard.

The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the cellular spectrum, is doing everything it can to streamline 5G implementation. It recently announced the Facilitate America's Superiority in 5G Technology (5G FAST) plan to help streamline the processes needed to bring 5G to life. Specifically, 5G FAST is designed to get more spectrum into the marketplace for providers, change infrastructure policies to make it easier for towers and base stations to be constructed and modified, and modernize laws that might otherwise restrict or slow the move to 5G.

How Does 5G Work?

The existing 4G network is well-known at this point and has been the standard for over a decade. Those tall cell towers that currently relay the 4G signals to phones and other devices would still be used in a 5G network, though they would need to be modified somewhat. Currently, most of them look a bit like giant birds’ nests sitting on poles. They would probably get a makeover to a more blocky design at the top of the towers as massive multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) antennas will be needed to provide coverage and bandwidth for 5G.

What will be more transforming on the landscape is the required addition of hundreds of thousands of new small-cell antennas which must be anchored to street light poles, at the tops of buildings, or any other structure that can support them. Those small antennas are needed to make 5G work using millimeter wave transmissions. That will enable much stronger signals and more bandwidth, but because of the small packet size, they won’t travel very far. Big cities will likely need at least one small antenna placed on every block to ensure reliable coverage. And rural areas might need to construct lots of new towers too, or the 5G signal won’t be able to reach smaller communities that are geographically far away from population centers.

Incidentally, it’s those new antennas that are causing the biggest problems for 5G implementations. Some state and local officials, such as those in places like Portland, Oregon, say adding thousands of cell towers to their city would be a huge eyesore, and are willing to buck federal officials and contest the matter in court. There have also been health questions raised about constantly blanketing living spaces with a new form of radiation. All of those concerns are already playing out and may further delay 5G’s rollout.

Those issues will need to be solved in order to achieve pure 5G connections from end to end between people and services. The plan in most places right now is to revert to 4G when needed, which could create huge bottlenecks if 5G traffic has to wait somewhere along the way for a lagging 4G infrastructure component to catch up.

Advantages of 5G

The biggest appeal to 5G is faster transmissions and lower latency. In terms of raw speed, the move to 5G should provide about a 20 times increase over 4G. At that rate, downloading a full-length movie could be done in about the same amount of time it takes to receive a text today. Speeds like that should also enable more devices to be in use at the same time. For example, even a billion internet-of-things devices deployed in a small area won’t amount to more than a tiny fraction of the available bandwidth under 5G. 

Lower latency is also key to 5G’s ability to support previously impossible new applications. Latency is defined by the amount of time it takes after an instruction is given for it to be transmitted and carried out. With 4G technology, if you can get an application to perform with under 100 milliseconds of latency, that’s pretty good. Some applications like online gaming require better performance, however, and getting them under 40 milliseconds is important. The new 5G technology should eliminate latency issues altogether, with average times under one millisecond in most tests. With latency concerns tossed aside, who knows what new applications will be possible?

Government and 5G

Many of the government’s most important IT modernization programs center on mobility and cloud computing, which could easily benefit from a communications backbone that is up to 20 times faster than we have today. The lower latency, in particular, will be very helpful, as it will make it seem like cloud-based applications are actually running locally. And of course, because the carriers will start to migrate their customers over to the new 5G service as soon as possible, it will solidify the link between citizens and government. Anything along the lines of citizen services will be vastly improved, assuming both the government and the person connecting with them have access to 5G, and there is a pure 5G network sitting between them.

One of the first government entities to benefit from 5G will likely be the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), a nationwide network being built exclusively for first responders to streamline their communications, especially in rural areas. AT&T, the company that is building out the network, says it plans to use funds allotted for creating the emergency network to upgrade the hardware on FirstNet towers now, which will make the switchover to 5G a mere software upgrade when it’s ready in the future.

In terms of cybersecurity, the introduction of 5G might initially increase the attack surface for government agencies as more devices are brought online to take advantage of the new speeds and reduced latency. However, this should be offset by the incredible amount of new bandwidth available under 5G. With blazing fast speeds, agencies can afford to heavily encrypt any data being transmitted without worrying about bogging things down. In addition, 5G speeds will likely enable new protection schemes that are simply not possible, or at least not practical, under 4G.

Assuming the concerns about the deployment of small towers and the potential risks of radiation exposure can be addressed and alleviated, 5G is primed to begin its full rollout soon. People will start to transition over to 5G because their carriers will insist on it. And private companies and organizations will likely embrace the incredible performance gains. Government needs to make sure it’s not left behind, but instead becomes a leader of a technology that will define what is technologically possible for at least the next decade and beyond.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys