Emergency Services Communication: the path to 5G

By Howard Kwan

Most emergency services use TETRA networks, a second-generation mobile technology introduced 25 years ago. But TETRA doesn’t support mobile broadband, meaning the emergency services can’t access the high-speed data connections they increasingly need without separate commercial devices.

Emergency services need to switch to a development path that will make sure they can benefit from the continuous evolution of mobile communications technology while maintaining features they rely on. In the UK and US, emergency services are already moving to 4G technology, however with commercial 5G services rolling out, should emergency services wait it out for the improved benefits of 5G?

Migrating to 4G services now would enable emergency services to continue with features they rely on now. And it would set emergency services up to adopt 5G once it’s mature, unlocking further opportunities to enhance operations. 

4G is mature enough to replace TETRA

Having been commercially available for a decade, 4G is mature enough to meet the needs of emergency services, including:

  • Voice or group communications
  • Despatch messaging
  • Internet and intranet browsing
  • Video streaming and file sharing.

These capabilities are essential, so any migration from TETRA must maintain them while adding capabilities enabled by mobile broadband support. That’s why 4G is a good choice today and is being adopted in UK and US – it already covers the essentials and has wide enough coverage and good enough stability for the emergency services.

5G will benefit critical emergency operations

The potential benefits of 5G would open new opportunities for emergency services.

5G will further enrich the data provided to emergency services field operatives through more high definition video and imaging, with data speeds of over 100Mbps and up to 10Gbps. This would also enable augmented reality, helping paramedics administer aid or use equipment, letting drivers find the most efficient route based on real-time traffic and showing fire crews the way through smoke-filled buildings.

5G will allow real-time remote control of devices, such as drones, as it has very low latency of less than 10ms. Drones could be first on the scene, monitoring the situation as support vehicles navigate traffic. They could easily get a birds-eye view of building fires before sending rescue workers in. And they could carry essential medicine to the scene of an accident that’s causing traffic jams.

5G will let emergency services use the Internet of Things (IoT) as it supports a much higher density of devices than 4G – perhaps more than 100,000 per square kilometre. Emergency services could use this for a network of sensors that help with remote policing, vehicle telemetry, monitoring appliances and peripherals (such as firearm usage and gun cabinet opening), vehicle diagnostics and even the wellbeing of officers (such as kilometres walked and proportion of time walking, running and stationary).

5G could enable cheaper dedicated emergency services networks

5G makes it possible to create dedicated virtual network architectures that suit specific service needs. This means commercial public networks can provide a dedicated public safety network.

Network slicing enables virtual mobile network topologies that ensure there’s capacity and performance for the applications emergency services require. This ensures the demands of public usage don’t compromise critical communications. It would also be relatively cheap and efficient to build a public safety network on commercial mobile networks, using a dedicated slice to offer wide coverage. And each slice can be fine-tuned to provide the performance the service needs.

In addition, the use of unlicensed or shared spectrum can allow for ‘network in a box’ scenarios, where ad-hoc ‘campus’ networks can be set up to provide adequate private coverage at the scene of an incident where commercial networks are weak.

4G today, 5G tomorrow

Moving from TETRA to 4G will offer immediate benefits and a defined evolution path to 5G. And when 5G is more mature, it will let emergency services take advantage of nascent technology, such as IoT, artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

But first, critical services based on mobile communications should migrate to stable and mature 4G networks. At the same time, emergency services and government policymakers can prepare for 5G and explore how it could transform emergency services operations.

The key to making emergency services more cost efficient, effective and ready for the future is to embrace 4G today while preparing for 5G tomorrow.

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