Are 5G Networks a Game Changer for Mission-Critical Communications?
By Nick Koiza
Monday, February 08, 2021 | Comments
As the critical communications industry gradually transitions, we are expecting to see it complement or replace highly reliable and secure TETRA and other radio networks with LTE technologies.

Nationwide LTE systems for public safety are proceeding with the rollout of the Emergency Services Network (ESN) in the UK, FirstNet in the U.S. and SafeNet in South Korea. In addition, regional and local 4G networks have been successfully installed for public safety in territories such as the Middle East.

The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) community has developed a set of standards for mission-critical (MC) functions, such as push to talk (MC PTT), data (MC Data) and video (MC Video), hopefully delivering on an expectation for LTE data speeds and enhanced capacity. This would provide considerable benefits over aging TETRA infrastructure, without compromising on strong features such as high availability and security, both of which public safety has grown accustomed to with well-proven digital professional mobile radio (PMR) technology.

However, the work of 3GPP has not stopped and additional MC services have been added. Release 15 resulted in phase 1 standards for 5G and Release 16 led to a subsequent phase, before current plans to finalize Release 17. In light of this, we need to consider what 5G may also mean for mission-critical solutions.

5G Implications
Although 3GPP has gradually evolved the standards for mobile broadband communications, fundamental differences exist between requirements for 4G and 5G, which will likely need to be taken into consideration when planning 5G use cases and associated technology solutions.

Specifically, 5G offers three distinct characteristics:
• Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) for high capacity and high speed, with peak data rates of greater than 10 gigabits per second (Gbps), compared to 100 megabits per second (Mbps) to 1 Gbps typically available with LTE.
• Ultra-reliable and low latency communications (URLLC) targeting high reliability and low latency, around 0.25 ms versus 1ms with LTE.
• Massive machine type communications (mMTC) for an extremely large number of potential internet of things (IoT) devices (massive IoT). The devices would have connection density of about one million devices per square kilometer.

5G Usage Scenarios
There are several applications that are best served by each of the major features offered by 5G. The diagram below illustrates some of those use cases. 

For effective digital transformation in security, defense and other MC sectors, URLLC is an essential element for the realization of highly available and reliable mission-critical broadband solutions on 5G networks. However, this does not mean that eMBB and massive IoT do not also have a role to play, depending on individual end user needs.

eMBB enables high data speeds above 10 Gbps, which promise to assist in delivering revolutionary new solutions. From an ambulance worker perspective, examples include permitting paramedics to potentially exploit augmented reality solutions, whilst using equipment or providing critical patient care.

Such data speeds may also be beneficial in allowing effective use of artificial intelligence (AI)-driven smart city camera solutions for intelligent monitoring and surveillance, as would widespread IoT network integration via mMTC for smart sensors. For example, it might assist in the monitoring of human behavior to assess thepresence of people acting in a suspicious way.

From a safety perspective, mMTC is likely to have an important role in, for example, detecting gunshots and dangerous chemicals by using massive IoT sensor deployment at strategic locations. In addition, wearables and body-worn devices may enable the monitoring of physical activity along with vital signs, for example, to help ensure the safety of public-safety workers.

Additionally, soldiers could be alerted to abnormal states such as dehydration, sleep deprivation and elevated heart rate with automated forewarning to medical response teams.

Control room operators across public-safety and other mission-critical sectors also stand to benefit as such IoT-enabling technology looks set to accelerate advances in situational awareness. Operator decision-making can potentially be enhanced through rich insights from integrated field data, including coupling of cameras with sensors, together with real-time analytics and assistive AI technologies.

There are many factors to consider when trying to establish whether 5G or LTE would be the right choice for enabling digital transformation. For example, the role of shared 4G/5G technology elements and ease of migration from LTE to 5G, frequency, power, cost, type of network deployment and operational user requirements. LTE networks already share some key 5G technology differentiators, although perhaps not to the same degree. For example, in relation to antenna features, massive multiple input multiple output (MIMO) improves the reliability of connectivity and increases data rates and capacity using multiple antennas. Beamforming, another multi-antenna technology, enables the transmission of radio signals between targeted devices, whilst on the move, for example.

As a scalable network solution, LTE offers an upgrade path to 5G. For example, its evolved packet core (EPC) can also be reused in non-stand-alone 5G arrangements delivering New Radio (NR), particularly when adopting 3GPP Release 15.

Therefore, initial investment in private LTE solutions could potentially result in the reaping of early mobile broadband benefits without losing the option to evolve to 5G in the future.

Frequency implications
5G differs significantly from LTE in relation to frequency, and there are important advantages and disadvantages, depending on end-user requirements.

This is driven by the fact that 5G makes use of millimeter waves, also known as the extremely high frequency (EHF) band, on frequencies between 30 GHz and 300 GHz.

The frequency used by LTE is much lower, typically less than 6 GHz. Although EHF allows a wide frequency band to be secured, enabling high speed and large capacity, there is a price to be paid. For example, higher 5G frequencies limit coverage and result in faster radio signal decay. In contrast, the lower frequencies of LTE permit greater coverage and therefore more users within a given cell, in addition to better in-building penetration and decreased attenuation.

From a frequency perspective, LTE is certainly flexible enough for nationwide and regional, as well as local network deployments, despite competition for limited spectrum across a narrower frequency band.

On the plus side, 5G will likely best complement the suitability of LTE in large open spaces, by providing advantages in dense urban areas where millimeter waves can provide the most benefit. This includes reduced dependence on construction of large-scale base stations and instead relying on many small cells easily deployable on existing city infrastructure, such as street lighting columns, where we have considerable experience from an IoT-enabled smart network perspective.

Deployment cost and network type
There are challenges associated with 5G deployment, particularly as this technology requires three times as many base stations as LTE, due to higher frequencies. In addition, there is typically a threefold power consumption increase for a 5G base station.

The initial investment required for a 5G base station is several times more than that needed for an LTE unit, which could prove cost prohibitive in the case of privately owned and managed 5G networks.

Despite the potential upfront cost constraints of private 5G networks, a cost-effective alternative option is available using commercial networks instead. This is facilitated by advantageous 5G virtualization features, which enable the creation of a dedicated system on a commercial network. Interestingly, a virtual network architecture can allow the fine-tuning of services with network slicing. Speed, capacity and other performance characteristics can be configured with each slice. Mission-critical services can be kept secure and totally separate from public usage, regardless of sharing the same commercial public network and having less control over it in comparison to a dedicated private network.

Operational user requirements
Finally, perhaps the most important factor of all is operational end user requirements.

Mission-critical markets have traditionally required fleets of vehicles and field staff to be managed, typically from the control room, by dispatch operators supporting police, fire and ambulance workers, for example. Such end-user groups will have their own specific use case requirements that will need to be carefully specified for each field-based role.

Importantly, user groups would typically not be so large that the quantity of users and devices results in a consumption of data beyond what may be possible with LTE. In addition, 4G latency performance levels of approximately 1 ms may well be sufficient for the task at hand.

Furthermore, requirements for massive IoT, supporting up to one million devices per square kilometer, are unlikely to be necessary at this stage.

The present transition from TETRA to LTE and/or hybrid TETRA-LTE stands to benefit a wide variety of mission-critical users, whilst also providing a migration path to 5G.

We have shown that LTE already provides major transformational benefits, especially for customer IoT solutions in public safety, transport, defence and smart city markets. For example, fire and explosion prevention using narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), intelligent vehicle telematics and fleet management with Cat-M1, and hybrid TETRA-LTE smart vessel tracking systems.

Therefore, a growing consensus is that MC users should consider proceeding with LTE networks, as 4G data speeds, capacity and low latency features are likely to be sufficient for most purposes at this stage, particularly within the global public-safety market. It would be prudent to allow 5G to mature and only then attempt to realize its considerable benefits, where applicable.

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Nick Koiza is the head of the security business at Plextek. Koiza’s focus at Plextek is helping organisations in the public-safety and critical communications and security sectors with their strategic positioning and technological capability. Koiza has a long and successful track record across public safety, worldwide communication and security sectors with senior management positions in public and private companies spanning IT, technology and communications. Prior to joining Plextek, Koiza worked at Sepura, Portalify and Simoco Group, where he developed a strong reputation as a leading authority in secure critical communications.

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