Government and industry leaders discussed what “5G readiness” means, the possible impact 5G might have on GEOINT missions, and how we might prepare to integrate and adapt to this new generation of digital communication
Fifth-generation wireless technology (5G) is here and anticipated to help unleash new connectivity levels among millions. Although 5G implementation is still in its early stages, there is already a range of explored applications across the U.S. and beyond. This new generation of capability has significant potential to advance speeds of access to content, networks, positioning, navigation, and timing.
On Wednesday, March 3, the USGIF GEOConnect Series Main Stage hosted industry and government leaders to discuss emerging programs and possible opportunities and challenges associated with the 5G framework.
Possible Use Cases with 5G
5G provides a foundation for this next wave of innovation and transformation for consumers, businesses, academia, and the government. It holds the promise for improved speeds combined with lower latency and supported through enhanced security. According to Jill Singer, vice president of Defense and National Security, AT&T, 5G is faster, better, and safer than predecessor generations.
“We are excited by the ubiquitous connections with 5G. It can connect people to people, things to things, people to things, and things to people for advanced immersive experiences throughout our lives. 5G is better than any wireless environment we’ve experienced before,” said Singer.
One example of a possible 5G use case Singer described was geofencing—creating a virtual perimeter for a geographic area. Further enabled by 5G, geofencing provides the robust precision location environment for combining wireless sensors, mobile devices, and mobile device management to track and monitor in these closed geographic areas. For example, in a mixed-use campus where the perimeter is defined through wireless sensors and the mobile device management capability controls the services, the applications, and the data available on the device are based on the campus’s precise location.
“In general, unclassified area users can gain access to all the features on their device. But in a controlled unclassified area, it may mean that certain commercial services are no longer available due to mobile device management features set by the owner of the fenced environment,” said Singer. “In classified areas, device access could be further limited and could mean that no services are available in a particular classified area, or even that alarms might go off if the phone shouldn’t even be there.”
From a government perspective, 5G also has significant potential. For example, it can advance the positioning, navigation, and timing across autonomous vehicles, drones, self-driving cars, and remote operations. But the challenge—specifically at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA)—becomes balancing the impact of 5G with the benefits and the risks to their existing infrastructure in GEOINT capabilities.
According to Dr. J. N. Markiel, Senior GEOINT Authority for Geomatics, Source Directorate, NGA, embracing 5G may be an opportunity to revisit the conventional ways of doing business. Nevertheless, it is important to take the time to understand all the potential implications. If chosen wisely, 5G can creatively improve our data quality and still enable those broad benefits it potentially promises to bring society as a whole.
“There is no doubt that 5G is the future,” said Dr. Markiel. “Our opportunity to realize a new future is not only about 5G, but also an occasion to modernize the old, with the attendant prospect for new research and development opportunities. We must equally respect the critical need to protect systems involving safety of life, such as safety of navigation, and choose wisely where 5G may not be appropriate when balanced with such expectations of our existing systems.”
And due to NGA’s global mission, they do not operate in small spaces. There are many places where the agency may not necessarily control and leverage capabilities like geofencing. According to Dr. Markiel, 5G has potential, but “We must approach our understanding of the many impacts of 5G on existing systems, capabilities, and systems on a case-by-case basis.”
Additionally, according to Stephen Malys, senior scientist for Geodesy and Geophysics, NGA, another challenge arises with 5G is sensor placement.
“If 5G or other ground-based signals are used for geopositioning, these ‘signals of opportunity’ can facilitate a good horizontal position. But it’s much more challenging to get a good vertical position from towers distributed on the surface only. So that would be a technical limitation,” Malys said.
Diversification in Deployment Capabilities
Wireless sensor systems utilizing 5G do not necessarily have to work with a commercial 5G carrier. There are open-source solutions out there that go with 5G.
“Virginia Tech has been doing some outstanding work in terms of 5G systems that don’t necessarily require a classic cellular communication carrier,” said Dr. Peter Fuhr, distinguished scientist, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the technology director for the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Research Laboratory.
As you look at the instantiations, there are multiple ways to achieve 5G coverage. There’s a broad range depending on the use and the particular organization. You could have a proprietary network managed by a carrier, a hybrid network where the spectrum used is owned by a carrier and operated by you, or you could be entirely open source.
“We’re taking advantage of the benefits 5G has to offer. The main takeaway is there’s not one size fits all. It depends on the use case and what the user wants to do. Technology providers can help address those needs, whether it’s fully open source or fully proprietary,” said Sean N. Day, director of Business Development and Partnerships at Intel’s Next Generation Standards Advanced Technologies 5G Program Office.
And as 5G capabilities are still developing and deploying, 5G innovators and experts are already focusing on the next generation, which ostensibly is being called 6G, to position themselves to shape our future where the next G is concerned.