Oct 03 2019

5G Promises More Speed, Less Lag for Modernizing Agencies

Security may need to be addressed with carriers who provide the technology.

As wireless carriers race to roll out the next generation of mobile broadband, federal agencies are in a race of their own. Those who depend on mobile connectivity need to understand what benefits 5G will offer — and what security concerns may emerge.

On the up side, the Federal Communications Commission paints a rosy picture of the ways in which 5G’s low latency, enhanced speed and bigger data capacity will improve productivity across the government workspace.

“5G will enable faster communication services, plus myriad new services and applications, including expansive IoT, smart transportation networks, telemedicine, smart cities, blockchain and robotics,” says FCC spokesperson Neil Grace.

How much better is it? Tech trade group IEEE estimates the new networks will deliver data with less than a millisecond delay, compared with 4G’s 70-millisecond lag. Peak 5G speeds could reach 20 gigabits per second, versus 1Gbps on 4G.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: The GSA is still optimistic about network modernization efforts at agencies. 

More Network Bandwidth Can Deliver Enhanced Productivity for Feds

Big bandwidth and low latency should translate to improved productivity. “Federal agencies’ core missions will be enhanced by the wave of innovation that 5G will bring,” Grace says.

Those enhancements could span a broad base of government users. “We can think of all the federal agencies that have folks who carry mobile devices,” says Patrick Filkins, senior research analyst with IDC’s Network Infrastructure group, who offers some hypothetical examples:

  • The U.S. Postal Service could leverage high data rates and expanded bandwidth to more precisely track drivers and packages.
  • The Defense Department could take advantage of 5G’s low latency to deliver information to war fighters and commanders in near real time. (In fact, the DOD this summer made the deployment of 5G a priority, hoping to avoid Chinese-based 5G networks.)
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other disaster response entities could use 5G’s small form factor to create pop-up networks, enabling local connectivity and forging communications links between first-responder teams.
  • Veterans Affairs could utilize 5G to send data-rich, high-resolution images wirelessly from the imaging room to a doctor working on another floor.

“You can put more devices on the network than you could before,” Filkins says. “It’s like going from your backyard pool to swimming in the ocean. Now we can start to connect things, we can automate, we can accrue data" and make better decisions.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out why DISA has embraced SDN for the Pentagon.

5G Security Must Be Addressed with Carriers 

Government won’t have direct responsibility for addressing the security of the 5G network. The wireless carriers who roll out 5G will need to ensure it comes with appropriate safeguards. Given the higher level of network-oriented threats, there will be a growing need for the government to vet carrier offerings with security top of mind.

One place to check for good security practices by the carriers would be the mobile packet core network, the place where mobile carriers sometimes piggyback their signal on the public internet. 

“Carriers plug into that, but they don’t own it,” Filkins says. “We may need to see more security around that core network, mechanisms that lock down the service provider in relation to the internet.”

All this could happen soon. The FCC has conducted multiple auctions this year for spectra that would enable 5G rollouts, and analysts predict large-scale commercial deployments in the next two to three years.

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