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What 5G means for public safety and what you need to know

The T-Mobile wireless network makes use of both low- and mid-band frequencies to deliver America's largest 5G network and new operational capabilities for first responder agencies


Content provided by T-Mobile

By Dale Stockton

Wireless connectivity facilitates fast, effective communication and public safety agencies around the country have been increasingly embracing mobile technology to support a variety of mission critical and mission essential operations. Until recently, those operations have relied upon 4G, which was first introduced in the U.S. more than ten years ago. Now, however, 5G is widely available and providing significant improvements over the previous generation of wireless. Few technologies have received as much attention as 5G, but the benefits of the technology are still being realized as agencies migrate to 5G-capable devices. The safety of first responders depends on fast, uninterrupted access to critical applications and data no matter the assignment, whether it’s a rapidly evolving tactical situation, a fast-moving wildfire, or a search and rescue operation during a natural disaster. With 5G, data transfer rates improve significantly, and latency is 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.

Mid- and low-band frequencies enable T-Mobile to deliver 5G network capabilities to both rural and densely-populated areas of the country.
Mid- and low-band frequencies enable T-Mobile to deliver 5G network capabilities to both rural and densely-populated areas of the country. (T-Mobile)

Some examples of emerging areas that 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. It’s likely that the use of body-worn cameras will expand beyond law enforcement to both fire and EMS operations, allowing scene commanders to better assess rapidly changing fire environments, and emergency rooms to see the actual condition of a patient in the field. 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 weapon. In this example, any significant degree of latency could result in missing potentially critical information. Suffice it to say that 5G supports 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 remarkable 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 very large areas and it’s very effective at passing through buildings. This makes it 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. The rollout of the T-Mobile 5G network to these underserved areas is remarkable 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.

The high-capacity T-Mobile wireless network makes extensive use of 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 wide 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 5G network advantage

After the recent merger with Sprint, T-Mobile has deployed a great variety of spectrum to create America’s largest 5G network. This 5G capability will be increasingly beneficial to public safety. The potential is clear: first responder agencies can expand operational capabilities and improve overall information access and exchange. Because of 5G, many agencies are already seeing significant opportunities and realizing operational advantages in ways that would have been difficult to envision only a few years ago.  The widespread adoption of 5G by public safety will be both transformational and revolutionary, with new capabilities continuing to evolve as agencies communicate their operational requirements to public safety technology vendors.

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 T-Mobile.com/PublicSafety.

About the author:

Dale Stockton is a 32-year veteran of law enforcement and has frequently assisted both agencies and vendors in effectively leveraging technology for public safety. 

Capable device required for 5G; coverage not available in some areas. Some uses may require certain plan or feature; see T-Mobile.com

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