Public Safety Agencies Don't See a Clear Path to 5G

Paul Kapustka
News Analysis
Paul Kapustka
5/10/2019
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DENVER -- Big 5G Event -- The promise of 5G cellular technology offers a lot of potential for public safety applications, but the road to real-world implementations is long and bumpy.

While 5G could help jumpstart real-time information gathering, interpretation and sharing -- which could greatly assist public safety efforts -- the messy details of how to fund, build and operate the systems that provide such a connectivity upgrade are still being worked through.

Those were the main takeaways from a panel discussion at the IWCE Public Safety Summit, part of the Big 5G Event held here earlier this week. While experiments, plans and calls to action in the 5G public service space are starting, panelists on the "How do I Get Ready for 5G" panel didn't have any concrete to-do list for any public safety organization looking for easy 5G answers.

"It's not an easy problem, and a lot of people own a piece of it," said John Contestabile, program manager for emergency response systems at the Johns Hopkins applied physics laboratory.

FirstNet contractor AT&T is busy signing up public safety agencies to its 4G LTE network -- 7,250 agencies have subscribed to 600,000-plus connections over the FirstNet system, UrgentComms reports. The promise of a similarly far-reaching 5G network is that it could enable features of great importance to the time-critical world of emergency operations. In a 5G world, first-responders could potentially have an incredible array of technological tools to assist them, like heads-up live video displays that could show them building structure maps, and live body cams to provide on-the-spot info to administrators.

While the promise of such systems is alluring, the road to get there can at times seem unpassable. In addition to the huge question of how 5G networks might get built and how public safety organizations might pay for access, panelists said there are still technology questions about whether the networks will be able to deliver on their promises.

Edward Chow, manager of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab's civil program office, talked about the agency's "AUDREY" artificial intelligence technology project, developed as part of the Department of Homeland Security's Next Generation First Responder program. According to NASA, AUDREY could potentially help firefighters by tapping into IoT 5G networks where wearable sensors in their clothes could pick up their GPS location, heat in other rooms, the presence of dangerous chemicals and gases, as well as building imagery.

While Chow told attendees that the promised speed and latency attributes of 5G would be a "tremendous benefit" for the decision-making time such AI systems need, he also pointed out a huge potential drawback from real-world situations. In fire events, he noted, "there are going to be collapsed building walls, which [5G] millimeter wave can't get through."

Add into the mix the inevitable non-5G challenges of any public collaborative effort -- the need to get many groups to work together on a common technology goal -- and you have a 5G public safety future that still seems distant. But even as he acknowledges the challenges, John Hopkins' Contestabile said that inevitable forces are already starting to pull things in the right direction.

"Megatrends like cloud computing and moving everything to IP are pushing things this way [toward greater collaboration]," Contestabile said. And while he thinks the federal government should provide more top-down guidance, he said local efforts and smaller projects could help start public safety overall down the path to "a more integrable climate."

Paul Kapustka, special to Light Reading.

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