Public Safety Advocate: Speeds and Feeds

Discovery Patterns is the company that graciously provides news searches. By reviewing the results, I can include a list of stories of interest along with links in my blog mailing. Recently, at my request, I updated the search words and added 5G, not realizing that by doing so, it would take much longer to decide which articles I think public safety might be interested in and to include them in the mailing. Every week there are literally hundreds of articles on 5G: A company completes its first voice call, another company will introduce a 5G phone “real soon now,” network operators are rolling out 5G as fast as they can, and the world will soon be full of 5G technology. 

The articles make it sound as though 5G is a fully-baked technology and it is only a matter of hanging a number of small cells on poles in cities and bingo! The possible data rates become astounding for wireless broadband systems and, of course, FirstNet subscribers will be able to take full advantage of 5G. However, the reality is that we are on the cusp of a full-scale evolution in broadband wireless. Long-Term Evolution (LTE) is becoming faster and 5G is coming, but like any new technology, there will be some bumps along the way including the many uncertainties surrounding some of the spectrum that will be used for 5G going forward. This is making it tough for those building devices to hit the mark the first time around.

To be precise, 5G is named 5G NR for “New Radio.” The 5G spectrum is interesting because it includes today’s existing mobile bands (T-Mobile says it is deploying 5G NR in its new 600-MHz band) as well as new wider bands (meaning more spectrum). Today’s LTE systems run at 10 MHz (5 down and 5 up) to 20 MHz (10 down and 10 up). With LTE aggregation, two or more LTE bands can be put together to provide 30 MHz or 40 MHz of available spectrum, which provides for faster speeds and perhaps more capacity. Channel sizes for 5G NR range from 5 MHz to 100 MHz for bands below 6 GHz, and are sized from 50 MHz to 400 MHz in bands above 24 GHz. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has auctioned the 24-GHz spectrum band and the 28-GHz auction is happening now. Plans are to auction the 37-GHz, 39-GHz and 47-GHz bands in the near future. Until the auctions are complete, it won’t be clear which network has access to which bands and when. 

It is interesting that only a few years ago spectrum above 24 GHz was not even considered for broadband services for mobile devices, and right on the heels of 5G we are hearing about developments in 6G, which uses spectrum above 100 GHz. Today a big change in network planning and thinking is being ushered in by 5G. For many years, the way to enable an area with wireless broadband was to build out large cell sites costing $250,000 or more. Then came the idea of adding smaller microcells in areas that could not generate sufficient revenue to support a full-on cell site. This was followed by the networks adding pico or smaller cells to gain coverage and capacity. 

With 5G, it is all about small coverage areas from each cell. This means each cell must be attached to a high-speed backhaul system such as fiber or microwave, and that the coverage area for each 5G NR cell site will be much smaller than with LTE sites. This is one way 5G can provide the faster data speeds and the capacity for many users since only a portion of the user population will be attached to a 5G NR site at any one time. Predicted data speeds, as always, are probably inflated, which seems to be the case with all wireless broadband technologies over the years. Suffice it to say that some 5G NR data speeds will be on a par with fiber, which is 1 GBPS, and some will be slower.

The goal of 5G is to meet the increasing demand for streaming services down to mobile devices. For public safety, 5G speeds will mean faster access to data, maps, and videos of incidents, thus providing more information more quickly. It will also enable applications and Internet of Things (IoT) devices that have not yet been invented, as well as devices that will work better when connected to 5G. Devices for 5G are an interesting issue. Today there are several 5G routers that can be used to replace wired or cable Internet to homes where there is 5G. It will permit streaming video to more devices in a home with no hesitations. However, the true goal of 5G is for it to evolve as a mobile technology. 

Qualcomm and Samsung already have chipsets for 5G devices. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), several companies including Samsung touted their upcoming 5G smartphones, and more are under development. This does not mean you or your department should rush out and upgrade your existing LTE devices for 5G this year or perhaps even next year. Like all new technologies, the first versions of devices will not take full advantage of the technology. It will take a while for 5G to settle in, network operators to work the bugs out of LTE-to-5G-to-WiFi transitions, and establish their 5G footprints.

The value of 5G NR will be realized first in metro areas where existing LTE networks are straining to keep up with streaming volumes. Then 5G cells will also be valuable in suburban and rural areas since they will be far less expensive to deploy than a full-up LTE cell site. In small rural communities, small cells can be installed in several locations to provide coverage to the population and LTE can be used to cover outlying areas. This is an important point. The advent of 5G NR will not diminish the need for LTE systems. LTE and 5G NR will need to work hand-in-hand to continue to provide the seamless wireless broadband environment most agencies and citizens enjoy today. 

It continues to amaze me how design engineers, chip vendors, and antenna manufacturers can keep stuffing new radios inside handheld devices. Today, a typical cell phone for use in the United States has access to bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/19/20/26/28/32 plus Time Division LTE (TD-LTE) bands 38/39/40/41. Cell phones also provide for Bluetooth and WiFi at 2.4 GHz, GPS, Near-Field Communications, and an FM radio (usually not available but should be). Now they will be adding all of the 5G NR frequency bands. All this requires smart antenna technologies and multiple antennas. We know both Qualcomm and Samsung already have 5G chipsets ready to go, but I have to wonder if at some point design folks will simply revolt and say enough!! 

Implementation of 5G for Public Safety

I see the first iteration of 5G for public safety as being vehicular modems that will provide access to both LTE and 5G. The advantages to this are the ability to receive faster data and more of it, better videos and still pictures, and to upload more features and functions. This might include both a dashcam and a body-worn cam, IoT devices to monitor a person’s well-being, and much more. Once the vehicles are equipped, the devices being carried can make use of the WiFi bubble around the vehicle and be connected back to the network using either LTE or 5G, whichever is available. Next up would be tablets so incident commanders could have more, better video of an incident and more information about the placement of resources, incoming assistance, and more. Finally, once the handsets have been proven in the field, it will be time to change out existing public safety smartphones for 5G devices. 

This process will happen fast since 5G has become the most current version of the “next big thing” citizens and everyone involved in technology are hearing about. Some of these citizens seem to think 5G will appear magically. Meanwhile, there are stumbling blocks for some 5G systems. Cities, and in some cases states, have filed in court to stop the FCC’s decree that 5G poles can be erected in rights-of-ways with little or no permitting and low per-pole fees. There is no word on whether 5G services on a single small cell will be used 100-percent by one user or if at some point the cells will be shared (called 5G slicing, which appears to be gaining momentum). If a small cell is used by only one vendor, does that mean in each city block there will be multiple poles with 5G cells on them? Will cities and neighborhoods fight these poles or will a city work with the carriers to integrate 5G into their smart-city plans, which is the logical thing to do? 

It is coming, but right now 5G NR is being overhyped and overpromised. Once the dust settles and networks have their 5G plans in place and build-outs continue, that will be the time to get excited about 5G and what it means to public safety. However, before the reality of 5G NR, watch out for the over-promises and under-deliveries.

Winding Down

WOW, what happened to January? I turned around and it was almost gone. It has been a busy month and I have been sent some devices to test out including a new Sonim XP8800 and a Motorola LEX 11. Along with this, my Sierra Wireless modem was recently upgraded to include Band 14 so it is capable of mapping all of FirstNet’s coverage as I drive. At some point I will be writing about the devices I have been running through their paces and reporting on what I have been told the future holds for devices.

In the meantime, while LTE continues to improve and 5G is being rolled out and tested, perhaps public safety should find ways to increase its use of the FirstNet network by adding video and data and learning more about how important it can be to have them in both directions. Over the past few months, FirstNet has seen tremendous growth in the number of agencies that have joined. Now the goal is to provide these agencies with the best possible applications to meet their needs. 

When this network was only a concept being discussed by public safety, the primary reasons for it to become a reality were nationwide interoperability and video and data services. Today it is a platform for interoperability with its Push-To-Talk (PTT) capability but more needs to be done to ensure this implementation of PTT remains compatible with other PTT systems, the FirstNet/LMR PTT bridge is easy to implement, and it does not cost a small fortune. Video can be a major resource for FirstNet users up to the Operations Center, to other units in the field, and down to the incident to provide better information. As NG911 is implemented, the public will be using video and stills more and more to record something they have witnessed. Sending these to responding units through call and dispatch centers will help responders solve many crimes and be better prepared for what they will have to deal with when they arrive at the scene. 

The reason the public safety community and others fought so hard to make FirstNet happen was to have a nationwide, interoperable network capable of video and data services. We need to keep this goal in mind as FirstNet is refined and enhanced. The addition of NG911, LMR, and enhancements to FirstNet should be the next milestone to strive for and achieve as quickly as possible. The ability to integrate all three into a fully operational communications platform will speed responses and save lives, including the lives of those responding to the incidents. 

Andrew M. Seybold 
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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