Mar 18 2024

DOD Drives New Interest in 5G Networks Across Government

Deployment issues will vary among agencies. Find out what your agency needs to consider as it plans.

Upgrading to a 5G network is a simple matter for citizens; our carriers and phones do it for us. But when it comes to a government transition, there’s more advance work that needs to be done.

The federal government’s move to 5G accelerated when the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 became law at the end of December 2023. The NDAA requires the Defense Department to develop private 5G networks at military bases and other DOD facilities.

It also allocates about $179 million for research into what the NDAA calls “Next Generation Information Communications Technology (5G).” The DOD has already invested about $600 million in 5G development, funding pilots at several military bases since 2020.

The military relies on much of the midband radio frequency spectrum, which includes some 5G capabilities, for communications and radar around the world. Enabling 5G would improve connectivity to both devices and the cloud, and would also create stronger security than 4G networks.

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Ask These Questions as Your Agency Plans for 5G

So what technology is needed to support the government’s 5G backbone and move data efficiently? That depends on the age of an agency’s network structure. Technology less than 5 years old may not need an update; the 5G capacity just bolts on.

However, even agencies with new networking technology will need to plan how to deploy a 5G network. Among the issues they’ll need to address:

  • What area is the agency trying to cover, and what devices are being brought in?
  • Will the network stay in one place, or will it expand over various locations?
  • Are rural areas involved? If yes, what is the 5G coverage like in that area?
  • Is the agency sticking with standard mobility devices, such as laptops and phones, or is it considering more specialized capabilities such as sensors, health metrics or warehouse robots?
  • What vendor will be best? (Cisco has a 5G effort, as do Dell, HP and more.)

There’s no one answer to any of these questions; it all depends on what the agency is trying to do with its 5G network.

READ MORE: What benefits can the federal government see from 5G?

5G Networks Contain Some Common Features

There will be a few commonalities across 5G projects, no matter the agency or its goals. One is the need for a Spectrum Access System, or SAS. Spectrum incumbents such as government agencies, the Navy and fixed satellite stations have first rights to radio spectrum. The SAS military helps avoid radio and communication interference.

If an agency’s network is meant to support a lot of users, large groups of endpoint devices or streaming for videoconferencing, telehealth connections or other uses, 5G enables high throughput to everyone on the network; it operates at the speed of light.

In addition, today’s mobile devices, equipped with electronic SIMs, can connect not only to regular Wi-Fi but also to a 5G network. This gives agencies whose employees work in remote locations with spotty connections the ability to set up a network quickly and ensure secure communications.

In the past, SIMs were often programmed to a specific network, preventing interoperability among providers. 5G jump-started a standardized ecosystem, meaning that agencies are now able to bring in emerging technology without having to replace it if they change carriers.

DISCOVER: Agencies study ways to protect 5G networks from adversaries.

Ask for Help Early in the 5G Planning Process

How quickly can 5G roll out? There’s no specific deadline for agencies to develop these networks, which is just as well because there’s a lot of planning involved. Many agencies are still figuring out exactly what 5G can do for them.

Expect to see movement toward 5G pick up in the next few years as agencies become comfortable with the concept and develop solid uses for it. If they’re thinking about deploying 5G today, they should consider talking to an outside agency that knows more about it. Few agencies have employees with the expertise in network communications that a third party might have.

And because there are so many vendors involved in creating a 5G solution, the teamwork between an agency and an outside partner is essential to make the project work the way the agency wants.

This article is part of FedTech’s CapITal blog series.

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