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4 Ways 5G Is Propelling Government Agencies Toward the Future

What will it take for government agencies to effectively implement 5G? That’s the question public sector and industry leaders discussed at Government Executive’s recent webcast. Here’s what they had to say.

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As workplaces across the country have transitioned from an in-office environment to a work-from-home setup, a number of IT issues have emerged: spotty Wi-Fi and unstable network connections that kick off users from important meetings, to name a few. These challenges come as government agencies are tasked with delivering critical services — like healthcare programs or unemployment benefits — at a time when constituents need them most. To meet these increasingly complex citizen needs and keep their communities safe amid a public health crisis, agencies need IT tools and resources that can deliver.

At Government Executive’s recent webcast, On the Edge: The Future of 5G in Government — hosted in partnership with AT&T — government and industry leaders came together to brainstorm solutions to these challenges. The common thread throughout the discussion? 5G, the fifth generation of technology standard for wireless telecommunication networks, might just be the solution. 

1. 5G in Government Is Taking off

5G has become somewhat of a buzzword in the government technology space. Owen Rodgers, AT&T assistant vice president for engineering and architecture for federal, simplifies the concept by identifying how it’s implemented across the public sector. 

Currently, he said, there are three major “market areas where 5G is being deployed. The simplest, and maybe most traditional, is mobile deployments, where a 4G device today will eventually be replaced by 5G. The second is a fixed wireless deployment, in which devices that are more like traditional routers or other network devices access the 5G network.”

But perhaps most revolutionary, Rodgers explains, is the deployment of network edge and Multi-access Edge Computing, or MEC technologies that can be used with 5G. 

“These are technologies that are going to interact with endpoints that have compute power in the network,” he continued. 

Rodgers forecasts MEC will become increasingly important in the federal government over the next few years. 

“What MEC allows you to do is place your network computing elements [on premises] closer to the endpoints that use them,” he said. 

Through MEC, sensitive data stays within a local network and can be processed more quickly, leading to improved performance and better security. Ultimately, that means you can do more with automation and compute-heavy processes in a low-latency environment. 

2. 5G Will Drive Defense Innovation Forward

A number of public sector organizations are already working on 5G pilot programs. The Defense Department, for example, is actively preparing to leverage 5G capabilities. 

The Air Force is one branch of defense taking massive leaps toward 5G innovation. According to Air Force Chief Technology Officer Frank Konieczny, the current mission is implementing 5G at all Air Force bases. 

Currently, the Air Force has secured a 5G leasing opportunity at 10 bases in the Southeast and 20 bases in the Northwest. 

Konieczny, who spoke on the webcast, said 5G could have implications for the Air Force — and the defense sector at large — going forward. He cited several experiments taking flight across various Air Force bases.

At Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, for example, Konieczny’s team is piloting the use of 5G at Air Operations Centers, moving up to 20 or 30 applications into a distributed mobile environment. 

“This is going to be interesting, this new concept of how you would actually interface with multiple things that can provide information to you very fast,” Konieczny said. 

Meanwhile, the Air Force is also looking to test aircraft resiliency, maintenance and training through augmented reality and virtual reality. 

“This is at the edge,” Konieczny continued. “We’re going to use this data at the edge at the depots, as opposed to moving it any place else.” 

The idea is to test 5G’s ability to dramatically improve direct data transfer of an aircraft’s maintenance and performance — even before it lands.

“5G is theoretically feasible to actually do that,” Konieczny added. “It’s fast enough.”

Rodgers added the industry will soon begin seeing AR and VR disrupt the government space.  Simulations could provide training to health care professionals, for example, teaching them how to conduct a surgery without operating on a live person. 

“You can create something in an immersive environment that gives you both visual and haptic feedback, that allows somebody to learn without the same risk of error,” Rodgers said. 

Meanwhile, government manufacturing facilities could leverage AR and VR to teach people how to operate complex machinery. Instead of investing in expensive machines and training materials, Rodgers explained, AR and VR would offer essentially the same level of training without the same cost or delays in the process. 

3. Addressing 5G’s Security Challenges — and Opportunities

According to Rodgers, 5G will also provide a number of security improvements. 

“Standalone 5G being deployed next year will include security features that will make it inherently more secure than previous generations,” he said. 

In fact, several enhanced user privacy protections will be applied in a 5G environment. For example, each device’s IMSI, or unique user identifier, will be encrypted, making user data more secure. Rodgers added that protocol improvements to Steering of Roaming services will reduce fraud and lower costs for the end user. 

There are also some security challenges that come with the move to 5G. 

“The scale of eventual 5G use is going to increase the threat surface for the number of endpoints that could potentially be compromised,” Rodgers said. 

Most organizations have never dealt with this level of scale. It’s a challenge that will require government IT leaders to be proactive about thoroughly monitoring and tracking these multiple endpoints. 

However, when these challenges are navigated successfully, 5G can become a remarkable platform for government innovation. Today, as COVID-19 continues to spread, government office staff are taking safety measures to actively mitigate the spread of the virus, including checking the temperature of each visitor that walks through the door. 5G and IoT capabilities could help officials conduct these measures faster and more efficiently. With thermal and HD cameras, agencies will be able to screen and assess body temperatures with speed and greater accuracy. 

5G could also help mitigate common challenges such as long security lines. With advanced screening and facial recognition capabilities, museums, government offices and even airports could eventually easily “reduce the friction involved with physical security lines,” Rodgers said. 

4. Successful Implementation of 5G Requires Public-Private Collaboration 

Of course, implementing 5G effectively will not depend on technology alone. It will also require collaboration between government and its commercial partners. And starting small is a step in the right direction.

“Prototyping makes better policy,” said Sal D’Itri, who also spoke on the webcast. As the chair of the National Spectrum Consortium, an organization that brings together leading professionals from government, industry and academia to solve challenges around 5G and spectrum access and sharing, D’Itri knows that collaborating with industry on prototypes is the key to innovation in government. 

To prepare for a 5G-enabled future, he recommends that more agencies take a similar approach. 

“Get something going where you can start working on a couple of use cases, leverage the commercial industry and the innovators, and learn from there,” D’Itri said. 

Click here to find out how AT&T can help your organization embrace the future of 5G.  

Be sure to check out other topics covered in this series:

5 Ways Security Can Help Agencies Achieve Mission Success

This content is made possible by our sponsor AT&T; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of GovExec’s editorial staff.

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