Jan 30 2020

What Is 5G Technology, and What Does It Mean for Federal IT?

Fifth-generation wireless networks will lead to increased speeds, lower network latency and new use cases for government agencies.

5G wireless networks are likely going to become more widely deployed this year as the nation’s wireless carriers start ramping up their coverage. The federal government’s use of 5G will also likely remain experimental in nature as the technology matures and more devices become available.

Nonetheless, 5G networks that government agencies can use are no longer theoretical. The Defense Department plans to conduct 5G tests at four military bases sometime in the first quarter of 2020, with the first experiment expected to take place at Hill Air Force Base in Utah involving spectrum sharing.

The move to 5G is also occurring on the civilian side of the government. Bill Zielinski, the assistant commissioner of the Office of Information Technology Category at the General Services Administration, said last fall that adoption of 5G is critical, given that the volume of government mobile data is expected to grow fivefold by the end of 2024.

“We know that agencies have business need to start testing how this next-generation wireless technology will help them meet their mission,” Zielinski said in October at a 5G symposium led by GSA and the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center, according to Federal News Network.

What Is 5G Technology?

5G is the fifth-generation mobile technology. The 5G NR — New Radio — is the new global standard adopted by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, better known as 3GPP, the standards organization for a unified and more capable 5G wireless air interface.

5G supports diverse radio frequency spectrum bands with very high available bandwidth. The 5G Core is the center of the network and the anchor point for multi-access technologies. 

The most noticeable difference to end users regarding 5G is the upgraded speed. 5G can deliver data speeds 10 to 100 times faster than 4G LTE and cut latency to milliseconds. Latency is any kind of delay that happens in data communication over a network.

There are two types of 5G NR. Non-standalone 5G NR leverages existing 4G deployments and requires only minor modifications to the 4G network. The focus is primarily on enhanced mobile broadband: ISPs use this to provide high-speed connectivity to users with 5G-enabled devices.

The other type is standalone 5G NR, which has three defined use cases, according to 3GGP. They include enhanced mobile broadband but also extend to ultrareliable and low-latency communications for critical applications, plus massive machine-type communications to support the Internet of Things.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Keep an eye on trends in federal IT for 2020. 

5G vs. 4G: What Are the Key Differences?

Mark Zannoni, a smart cities analyst and former research director of smart cities and transportation at IDC Government Insights, says that “5G will enable the scaling of existing and development of future smart city solutions, given its ultrareliable low latency and higher data capacity and denser connections than LTE.”

There are network innovations embedded into the 5G standard that make the next generation a “profound leap from LTE,” Zannoni says.

The first is latency. LTE network latency is currently mostly between 50-100 milliseconds, Zannoni notes. “5G standards require a maximum latency of four milliseconds, and for many applications, latency is expected to be less than a millisecond,” he says. That means there will be very little network lag.

Data rates and throughput on 5G can be up to 100 times faster than on LTE. Speeds on AT&T’s 5G network in Dallas hit 1.3 gigabits per second during April tests conducted by PC Magazine. Meanwhile, tests CNET performed in May on Verizon’s 5G network in Chicago produced download speeds of 1.3Gbps.

5G also enables far greater network density than 4G networks. “While an LTE tower can handle around 2,000 simultaneous connections, 5G specifications call for a minimum of one million connections per square kilometer,” Zannoni says.

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

5G Wireless Network Use Cases in Government

There are a wide range of potential use cases for 5G across government. The DOD’s 5G tests include pilot projects for each branch of military service, Dwayne Florenzie, senior strategy executive at the Air Force’s Office of Commercial and Economic Analysis, said at a 5G conference cosponsored by law firm Venable and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., according to Breaking Defense.

“That was purposely done,” he said, “so that we do share the information and lessons learned from each other.”

The publication reports:

“Test environments” will be stood up at McChord AFB in Washington (the main base for the Army’s C-17 fleet), which will involve using 5G to enable virtual reality training, and at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Georgia and Naval Base San Diego where 5G connectivity will be used to speed depot and warehousing activities. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law on Dec. 20, approved $275 million for the DOD-wide 5G research and development effort, and the creation of the test sites.

Meanwhile, separately, the Air Force is working with AT&T to create a “smart base of the future,” including modernizing the Tyndall Air Force base’s communications infrastructure via 5G technology. The full upgrade is expected to take three to five years, but AT&T will turn on 5G service in mid-2020, according to Defense Systems. Tyndall will be able to use 5G for “wide-scale video, surveillance and analytics that cover everything from the flight line to physical perimeter security, such as monitoring gates with license plate readers,” the publication reports.

Patrick Filkins, Senior Research Analyst, IDC’s Network Infrastructure group
You can put more devices on the network than you could before. It’s like going from your backyard pool to swimming in the ocean.”

Patrick Filkins Senior Research Analyst, IDC’s Network Infrastructure group

“The Department of Defense really stands at the cusp of some of the most revolutionary changes in the market that they’re leading, and I think they’re game-changing,” Mike Leff, vice president for defense at AT&T Global Public Sector, tells Defense Systems. “The power of 5G has the potential to revolutionize and transform DOD operations, particularly on military bases, to significantly enhance mission readiness and enabling new mission capabilities like never before.”

All federal agencies that have users who carry mobile devices can benefit from 5G, says Patrick Filkins, senior research analyst with IDC’s Network Infrastructure group. He offers FedTech some hypothetical examples of 5G use cases:

  • 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.
  • 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.

5G Security Concerns in Government

One of the issues that needs to be addressed when it comes to 5G is network security.

As Nextgov reports, “the introduction of 5G might initially increase the attack surface for government agencies as more devices are brought online to take advantage of the new speeds and reduced latency.”

Meanwhile, in November, a bipartisan group of senators urged the White House to name a 5G coordinator to manage what the lawmakers called an “unprecedented security challenge” as a result of 5G’s deployment, C4ISRNET reports.

In a Nov. 18 letter addressed to Robert O’Brien, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, the senators said they wanted the White House to spearhead a national strategy on 5G. They warned that the United States is falling behind on 5G development and allowing China to fill the vacuum.

“5G represents the first evolutionary step for which an authoritarian nation leads the marketplace for telecommunications solutions,” the letter says. The letter was signed by the chairmen and ranking members of the intelligence, homeland security, foreign relations and armed services committees.

The senators urged O’Brien to name a single individual “focused solely on coordinating and leading the nation’s effort to develop and deploy future telecommunications technologies.”

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