From 5G networks to specially equipped communications trucks and drones, the nation’s first responders have a growing arsenal of tech tools that keep them communicating during the worst kinds of emergencies.
One of the biggest challenges first responders face in emergency situations is receiving reliable information: Where is a fire heading? When is backup arriving? What equipment do they have? Have residents been evacuated? For first responders there’s the constant issue of terrain and topography, which can impede communications and complicate existing challenges when access to data is critical. Additionally, cell towers often become congested or damaged in emergencies, impairing communications between first responders, commanders and supporting agencies.
To provide reliable communication infrastructure for first responders, Congress passed legislation in 2012 that granted Band 14 spectrum (700 MHz) and funding to launch the First Responder Network Authority known as FirstNet, dedicated to establishing a modern, nationwide, high-speed voice and data network. FirstNet gives first responders an advantage in day-to-day operations, disaster response and recovery, and a reliable infrastructure that is less likely to be impeded by crowds and large events.
However, even with FirstNet (managed by AT&T) and similar services from carriers like Verizon, first responders still encounter a host of communication challenges. In particular, natural disasters such as fires, floods and hurricanes can inflict lasting damage to cell towers and backhaul. For example:
Over the past 15 years, there has been a rapid shift from person-to-person voice communication systems like Land Mobile Radios (LMRs) to smart devices in public safety that rely on network availability. First responder organizations are adopting a system of backups, including highly reliable LMRs for voice communications, as well as emerging solutions for on-demand deployable Satellite Cell on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs) and Cell on Wheels (COWs) solutions. An even more cutting-edge twist to Cell on Wheels solutions is a growing fleet of flying Cell on Wings, which are rugged, weather-resistant drones equipped with antennas that provide cell service to the area immediately around them.
Temporary SatCOLTs and COWs towers are tethered to land-based vehicles, which provide power and additional backhaul services. Flying COWs can operate for 24 hours at a time, at heights between 200 feet to 400 feet (500 feet higher than a traditional Cell on Wheels mast) and in up to 25 mph winds. COWs can boost the signal of the network in emergencies or replace a damaged network until infrastructure repairs can be completed, offering between 14 to 40 square miles of LTE-quality service.
FirstNet already has more than 600,000 device connections registered, and is being used across 7,250 public safety agencies around the nation. Recent subscribers include the Chicago Police Department, the Seattle Fire Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Another significant challenge to first responder communications is terrain. This is where mobile operators can play a significant role. Until 5G technologies are deployed across the nation, carriers can improve cell reception in remote locations by expanding the nation’s existing 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) cellular data networks, particularly by utilizing more low-band 600 MHz and FirstNet’s 700 MHz public safety broadband spectrum, which are better able to penetrate physical objects such as buildings and wooded areas. But while lower frequencies help, they aren’t a silver bullet for dead zones caused by valleys and mountainous geographies.
Keep in mind that 5G will utilize low-, medium- and high-band spectrum in different ways depending on location. In remote areas, for example, a single cell tower using low-band spectrum has the potential to reach more than 1,000 square miles of territory. 5G’s greater bandwidth and lower latency should also result in faster application response times with less congestion. But terrain will remain an issue that 5G cell towers alone won’t be able to fix.
In cities and urban areas with much higher population density, carriers are planning to deploy 5G over mid- and high-band spectrum, including Wi-Fi. Small cell deployments using high-band millimeter wave technology are already starting to appear in large cities around the country, promising high speeds (potentially in excess of 1GBPS) over short distances (generally less than half a mile) but these work best when the cell has a line-of-sight connection to the device. By deploying huge numbers of these small cells throughout cities, carriers hope to provide enormous bandwidth for all users while reducing the risk of interference and congestion.
We need our first responders to have reliable access to high-speed data and voice networks when they are at the front lines of any situation — whether in a remote part of the country or in the center of a city. Although the communication issues caused by terrain are not easy to resolve, the expansion of 5G technologies will provide dramatically better throughput and may alleviate some congestion problems. The emergence of rapidly deployable options such as Cell on Wings and satellite backhaul will provide a more resilient patchwork of communications during disaster response and recovery efforts.
Regardless, 5G and future versions of wireless networks are unlikely to provide universal, guaranteed connectivity any time soon. Other technologies dedicated to specific improvements and enhancements will be vital. This includes everything from mobile VPNs that improve throughput and reliability for mission-critical applications to emerging IoT technologies that save precious minutes by rapidly identifying and alerting authorities to fires and earthquakes. What’s important is to ensure that no matter what network connection first responders use, it works just as hard as they do to keep our communities safe.