Simon Hill, Technical Director at Excelerate Technology, details the exciting potential offered by 5G communications.

What is different about 5G compared to existing cellular technology?

5G will be very different from 4G. It will be a network of networks. There will be far more openness and bringing together of communications technologies. It won’t be wholly cellular. It will be more expansive than anything that is currently available.

For example, 5G will incorporate the use of millimetre wave radio. This is very high frequency and operates in much smaller cells that might only stretch from one lamppost to the next. The very high-frequency radio offers high bandwidth, fast speeds and ultra-low latency. While this type of network won’t be viable in rural areas, where lower frequencies will have to be used, it will revolutionise communications in higher-density urban areas.

In the medium to longer-term, there will be a convergence of multiple communications technologies, including both millimetre wave radio and much greater use of satellite. Huge investments are today being made in satellite by companies like OneWeb and Elon Musk’s Starlink. These will help to deliver fast speeds and low latency without the need for mast infrastructure.

What difference will 5G be able to make to emergency service operations?

5G offers an exciting potential for enhancing interpersonal communications and for connected emergency service vehicles. It will be faster, with more capacity and with lower latency (very little delay).

5G will, for example, offer a solution to the issues that currently exist at public and sporting events such as football matches – where up to 80,000 people gather in one place, once every two weeks. It will overcome the problem of high contention ratios and provide much higher bandwidth. There be a massive increase in the reliability of the network, with fewer dropped calls and failed connections. It will also open up the greater use of video, gaming and augmented reality (AR) type applications.

Let’s take the example of an Incident Commander wanting to share video footage with close-by colleagues in the same telecommunications cell. With current technology, the entire data stream has to travel back to a far-distant central point and then back again. 5G shares most of the data locally in the cell, with only a small amount of control data channelled to a central point. This massively increases capacity, increases speed and reduces latency.

The way 5G works will also mean lower battery demand on devices and so, in turn, longer battery life, another valuable feature for emergency service users.

Will 5G enhance or replace ESN?

The architecture of the 5G network is completely different from existing networks. The network is sliced up in different ways. This will make it much easier to prioritise emergency service connections, without the complexity required for the current Emergency Services Network (ESN). The 5G infrastructure is much more open and this will also mean that services do not need to use a single telecommunications vendor, with the limitations this can impose.

How long will 5G take to be fully implemented in the UK?

As with all previous generations of mobile phone coverage, 5G is starting in our larger cities and will gradually roll out across the country. It will be a long time before it is ubiquitous, certainly years. Today, relatively few devices are 5G compatible, although Excelerate is already installing routers and other equipment, which have an upgrade pathway for 5G. 4G will still be in use for a long time and so backwards compatibility is also an issue to bear in mind when planning ahead.

Is Excelerate currently engaged in any 5G projects involving the emergency services?

Excelerate is already participating in a number of trials and projects to deliver the benefits of 5G technology to the emergency responder community. 5G networks using a blend of cellular, satellite and wireless are going to transform how society and every device it uses communicates over the next 10 years, with the large proportion of global connectivity ‘not spots’ becoming a thing of the past.

Working together with both end-users and industry partnerships, we are supporting improved connectivity and access to SMART and connected applications. Some of these projects will soon become more public and we are looking forward to supporting the ambitions for ubiquitous connectivity.

Are there any futuristic applications of 5G that you can envisage for the emergency services?

Yes, 5G offers massive potential for a whole range of new applications that have not been possible up until now.

5G will be necessary to enable fully functioning autonomous vehicles in the future. This offers the potential for a self-driving ambulance that could free both paramedics to care for a patient on the way to the hospital, not to mention the scope for remote telemetry and diagnostics by specialist consultants via direct high definition video links to hospitals.

Equally, 5G offers the potential to enable augmented reality. This might enable motorists to fix their own cars at the roadside thanks to maintenance guidance direct to smart glasses. Clearly the emergency services have multiple applications that could take advantage of the same technology. For example, a firefighter might be able to follow arrows projected into the floor to show the required pathway in a dark or smoke-filled environment.

We haven’t even thought of all the new applications of 5G. It is certain to transform the work of the emergency services as well as many other aspects of our personal and working lives.

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