Vehicle routers serving as tip of the 5G spear for public safety
Super Bowl television advertisements remain a staple of the American zeitgeist. Not surprisingly, Super Bowl LIV brought viewers a tempting glimpse of what 5G promises in the way of improved first-responder operations. Verizon Wireless advertisements showcased the company’s commitment to first responders, and they also put a spotlight on its technology expertise. The gauzy peek into the future was certainly emotionally satisfying, but 5G reality in 2020 is considerably different.
5G brings a promise of extraordinary mobile broadband speeds as access to new high-frequency bands becomes a reality. But more than merely adding lanes of bandwidth to the connectivity highway, 5G also brings important new flexibility in how the radio air interface operates. This new agility opens the way for new use cases that will bring benefits across industry and society.
The promise of 5G is real, but the new capabilities come with a constraint that slows its arrival in the first-responder toolkit. Delivering game-changing speed and capacity requires spectrum in very high-frequency bands, ones with terrible radio propagation characteristics.
To be sure, 5G New Radio (NR) can work in narrower low-band spectrum. But merely operating the 5G NR in congested radio spectrum over thin radio carriers does not bring the game-changing capacity. Access to wide new radio channels suitable for high-performance 5G transmissions means the use of spectrum above 2 GHz, such as the significant swath of 2.5 GHz airwaves used by Sprint and the 28 GHz band deployed by Verizon.
The rapid signal drop-off in high bands limits the realistic deployment of 5G functionality into individual user devices. If the design of a public-safety operation depends upon 5G availability and ubiquitous 5G coverage is not available, the mission will fail in most cases during the next several years.
That risk means public-safety leadership will not depend on 5G coverage. Perhaps, in the future, bring-your-own-5G-bubble coverage—combined with edge computing—can make up the wide-area coverage gaps. But cost and complexity will make those options unpopular with budget-conscious officials.
The upshot of these limits means that vehicle routers sporting multiple radio modules—both LTE and 5G—will serve as the focal point for public-safety 5G network use for the next several years. The good news for public-safety agencies is that suppliers of commercial off-the-shelf vehicle routers should have a relatively smooth upgrade path toward 5G New Radio air interfaces, as well as 5G/LTE dual connectivity.
While far from a trivial software undertaking and possibly forcing a need for hardware modifications, the modular design of these devices means integration of 5G support at the physical level should not be a huge lift. When complete, the additional capacity will bring a helpful capacity boost to mobile field communications units, as well as incident-command vehicles.
Vehicles routers bring the greatest benefit from early 5G adoption, thanks to outdoor operation boosted by external roof-mounted vehicle antennas. In contrast, getting useful 5G New Radio functionality into handsets used by first responders is a much more difficult problem.
As police, fire, and EMS personnel enter building structures, the walls of the building structure block high-performance 5G signals transmitted at very high frequencies. Worse, the reverse link from the worker’s device up to the cell tower must remain at low power levels to protect the end user’s health. Punching out of a structure using a high-performance, high capacity 5G signal in a high band is going to be tough.
The answer for ubiquitous high-performance 5G access enabled by high spectrum bands is a combination of widespread outdoor small cells and robust in-building system coverage.
Unfortunately, current efforts to ensure effective in-building emergency responder radio coverage system (ERRCS) support are limited to classic low-band land-mobile-radio (LMR) frequencies. Around the US, authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) do not even call for much more than straightforward, low-band FirstNet coverage in the fire code. This gap means consistent ubiquitous 5G handset connectivity over high-performance, high-band spectrum likely is years away from becoming a reality.
Fortunately, the mobile vehicle router is free of many constraints faced by handsets or user-held devices. With these vehicle-mounted systems that typically utilize readily available power and external antennas, access to high-bandwidth wireless transmission capacity is much more likely.
That means incident commanders in mobile command centers have a better chance to leverage real-time video flows that can enhance the situational awareness informing critical operational decisions. 5G deployment in other frontline vehicles brings other benefits, such as reducing the load on low-band spectrum than can get congested today.
Finally, vehicle routers operating 5G produce a historical trail, mapping precisely where 5G coverage is found in an agency’s territory. That GIS dataset will inform public-safety leaders about the reality of 5G availability and effectiveness. For agencies looking forward to a 5G future, the vehicle router is the essential first step in the journey.
Ken Rehbehn is the directing analyst for critical communications for IHS Markit’s Technology Research Products & Solutions unit. IHS Markit, IWCE and IWCE’s Urgent Communications are all part of the Informa Tech, which is owned by Informa.