The Role of 5G in Government 

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The technology is a critical piece of modernization. 

We’ve been hearing for a while about the promises of 5G wireless: greater networking capacity, throughput up to 10 times faster, better connectivity and more secure access. As with most new technologies, there is a lot of excitement about the capabilities. We have visions of ubiquitous mobility without latency, enhanced video for perfect videoconferencing and simulation training, and all the gee-whiz features that augmented reality can provide to put us in realistic scenarios before they occur.

Private entities already are enjoying the benefits of 5G-driven AR, especially with quality assurance on production floors. Companies like GE, Porsche and Airbus are cutting inspection times by more than 80% while lowering their error rates. I’ve seen these improvements, firsthand. CommScope has added AR to its automated infrastructure management solutions to locate network equipment in the data center and see virtual circuit tracing, including tracking fiber cables through the conveyance system. 

Setting Expectations

Unfortunately, all this excitement—or hype—about capabilities has gotten ahead of the 5G rollout, which is still very much in progress. As one example, the NFL kicked off its centennial season this year in partnerships with major telecoms to bring 5G to 14 of its stadiums. The carriers created 5G fan experiences in AR, allowing them to use 5G smartphones to superimpose a player’s image, while in play, for souvenir selfie photos; see game stats overlaid on the field; and create their own touchdown dance in 3D in the stadium’s Hall of Heroes. For the carriers, the stadiums are a testbed for 5G rollout, but for some fans it was a disappointment when they learned they could only access 5G from certain locations and not from their own 4G phones. Some saw it as another example of 5G not meeting expectations. 

For federal leaders trying to determine the best use of limited technology funds, the idea that 5G is being oversold has a chilling effect, especially when concerns persist that it still isn’t secure enough. This may cause some to look at other areas where they may get a more reliable return-on-investment, at least in the near term. They may decide to focus on 5G later, or not at all. This would be a mistake, leading government agencies to move ahead with technologies that aren’t sufficiently supported by legacy networks only to have to upgrade infrastructure after 5G devices are more prevalent. 

Preparing for 5G—and Other Innovations

A better approach to planning would be to recognize that 5G is coming—while research and development continue—and now is the time to prepare. That means modernizing legacy network infrastructure not only for 5G, but for Wi-Fi 6 and Citizens Broadband Radio Service with its private LTE capabilities, which already are on the verge of being widely deployed. Together, these networking innovations make up the trifecta of integrated, next-generation wireless connectivity to give federal agencies the security, quality and ubiquity that is needed. 

This seems to be the sense of the Defense Department’s 5G Task Force, which recommended earlier this year that the department move ahead cautiously with 5G in conjunction with other technologies, with testbeds on select military installations. 5G deployment should be measured against acceptable risk and whether its use is mission-critical, the Task Force said. Defense will move ahead in planning for 5G, while industry continues to perfect the technology and the federal government works on national standards and spectrum auctions. 

Next steps For industry’s part in improving the technology, there are three strategic components for the 5G vision to be realized in converged networks:

  • Densification: Increased delivery speeds require more base stations across macro sites, in-building and within small cells. Networks will need intelligent, automatic spectrum allocation to maintain quality and speed, while wireline infrastructure will require upgrades to provide adequate fronthaul, backhaul and power.
  • Virtualization: Much of the 5G infrastructure will need to be virtualized to manage spectrum and costs. This includes centralized radio access networks, network function virtualization, cell virtualization and virtual service instances.
  • Optimization: Designing and deploying 5G to get the best performance requires spectrum efficiency, virtualized load-balancing, small cell technology and energy-efficient backhaul. These are seen in solutions such as mobile edge computing, power-over-ethernet and interference mitigation in the network. 

5G doesn’t hold all the solutions for the modernized government experience, but it is a critical piece that agencies should start planning for now by having the foundation in place. If 5G is to deliver on its promise—and I believe it will—we will then see the most dramatic difference yet in cellular communications. When that happens, we’ll have federal agencies where workers and guests communicate from anywhere, customers can get 24x7 service, data is readily available to inform quick decisions, and users can be confident in the security of the network. In that scenario, mobility is everywhere, and latency is mostly a thing of the past. 

Brian Wright is director of systems engineers for federal at CommScope.