Diverse Applications Arise from 5G Bands
Different strokes provide capabilities more suited to specific uses.
Government and the military are planning to benefit from the deployment of fifth-generation cellular, known as 5G, with new capabilities that take advantage of the different bandwidths used throughout the system. For civil government, that may translate to improved efficiency, which will allow skilled humans to move to higher skilled tasks. For the military, it may lead to better capabilities that give warfighters more flexibility and speed of action in combat operations.
One of the advantages of 5G is that it operates in diverse multiple bands, as opposed to traditional cellular in lower bands. The different bands used in 5G have different characteristics and channel widths. Lower bands in the megahertz range have narrow channels, so the pipe is not broad. However, they do propagate and attenuate at greater distances and can go through concrete and steel. These bands require less infrastructure and are more economical.
In mid-band frequencies, the continuation and propagation shorten, so the signal doesn’t travel as far. But the channel width is larger—up to 40 or even 80 megahertz wide—and the propagation loss is not severe. The data doesn’t travel as far, but more of it can be moved.
Up in the 5G millimeter-wave bands, channels can be up to 200 megahertz wide and carry lots of data. Conversely, these don’t travel far, so they require a dense network.
For mid-band and millimeter-wave, service providers are deploying many techniques that are revolutionary, says Randy Clark, vice chairman of the National Spectrum Consortium. Clark, who also works at Verizon, adds that Massive Multiple Input/Multiple Output (MIMO) antenna arrays and beamforming systems bring many new efficiencies that help leverage the radio frequency spectrum.
He notes that beamforming systems provide directed signal energy instead of conventional cell towers that spray signals in all directions from their antennas. With beams directed at the individual cell unit, the system does not waste energy, and costs are lower. Military use provides low probability of detection/low probability of interception, and turning the beam on and off and changing the frequency increases the difficulty of interception, he points out.
Rear Adm. David Simpson, USN (Ret.), professor at Virginia Tech, cites the wide bandwidth as valuable for the military, particularly from frequencies below gigahertz to multiple tens of gigahertz. “The sheer throughput will be significant,” he says.
Commercial carriers today are deploying low-band 5G and some mid-band 5G, with selected locations receiving millimeter-wave 5G. Clark offers that millimeter-wave 5G likely will be used in densely populated areas and in mission-critical areas such as seaports, airports, utilities and manufacturing locations.
Clark doubts that the United States ever will have a nationwide millimeter-wave network. This would require millions of cells. Instead, a heterogeneous network will leverage the different radio frequency (RF) bands based on use cases for each geographic area.
He notes that many military bases do not have 100 percent 4G LTE coverage. Commercial carriers built their cell towers based on population patterns as defined by the census, and military personnel tend to file their census reports at their legal domicile. So, many bases were overlooked as cell sites. Recent years have seen a concentrated effort to deploy commercial cell service at bases and garrisons, but it is a slow process to meet necessary legal and safety requirements. Yet some military sites remain bereft of cell service, particularly bombing ranges for which it is difficult to obtain insurance for cell towers, Clark notes.
“It will take a while for the Defense Department to consume 5G, because it still needs to increase infrastructure to support 4G LTE, and then it has to move to 5G,” Clark says.
The Defense Department is leading its push into 5G by funding research and development to accelerate innovation in that area. Other government agencies likely will follow suit as innovation opportunities become apparent, Clark suggests.
Adm. Simpson adds that the Defense Department has changed from following the leader on 3G and 4G to taking the point in 5G. The machine-to-machine nature of 5G, which differs from its predecessors, offers great potential for military value in areas such as the extremely wide bandwidth, which has the most throughput capacity. And if the signals cannot travel through concrete or steel walls, they can be used inside a building and reused outside of the same building.
“All of the bands have meaning in a fully deployed 5G environment, and they will provide an amazing amount of throughput if and when we use it,” the admiral states.
Clark notes that 5G is fundamentally different from its cellular predecessors because it is an entirely virtualized environment, including both the core and the radio access network (RAN). The result is much more agile, lightweight and affordable. “It becomes software,” Clark posits.
Adm. Simpson points out that 5G differs from the other -Gs in its machine-to-machine aspect. “It will bring alive the Internet of Things [IoT],” he states, as 5G will broadly connect inexpensive devices and give them the capacity to communicate. In turn, the IoT will introduce solutions hitherto not considered, and it will bring the cloud to the edge. The massive amounts of data collected will be the fuel that introduces artificial intelligence (AI) with meaning at the edge.
Clark explains that this works out to application-to-application communication without human interface. “By combining software discussions over 5G protocol, leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning [ML], we are on the verge of making a lot of calculated decisions autonomously via the protocol,” he says.
He continues that the human blink of an eye takes 250 milliseconds. Using 5G millimeter wave with edge computing in AI, decisions will take less than 10 milliseconds round-trip. For a dismounted warrior in a hyperconnected environment leveraging sensors of all types, decisions based on the data collected en masse from those sensors will be fed to the warrior in less than the blink of an eye.
Adm. Simpson adds that having people serving as primary security enablers for endpoints “is just a nonstarter.” So, 5G will need automated smart capabilities in both the operation and the defense of 5G.
Clark cites two fundamental areas that offer enormous benefit. One is for operations at bases, posts and garrisons. This can help improve logistics supply chain efficiency significantly, he points out. The operations of an ammunition depot, a warehouse or a smart flight line will benefit from the high-bandwidth autonomy and low latency of 5G. Mission readiness will improve significantly, he offers. “We’ll be able to turn ships around faster, and that becomes a force multiplier. Turning aircraft around for additional sorties at a lower cost directly impacts our mission readiness and lethality,” he adds.
Adm. Simpson says the low latency offers “amazing potential.” A complex piece of machinery could be controlled from long distances with a tactile feel that currently is available only on site. The COVID pandemic has cleared the way for white-collar jobs to be performed at home, he notes, and 5G increasingly will enable blue-collar jobs to follow suit. “Whatever operator function today requires a person on-site, we can increasingly have that person live in a nice-quality-of-life area and jump on a 5G-connected terminal and operate that [device],” he predicts.
And 5G channels can be broken down into slices. For example, one slice into a home could carry information between IoT systems and the power grid. Another slice could carry streaming videos and other entertainment. Yet another could carry voice communications. And all of these slices could be wrapped in cryptography, Adm. Simpson outlines.
The operational aspects of 5G have a lot of dual-use applications commercially, Clark adds. Airports, manufacturing plants, agriculture and utility use cases all have ways of operation similar to how government and the Defense Department run their installations. As these technologies start to be ingested, the commercial sector will benefit as well.
The other fundamental area affected by 5G is warfighter lethality, Clark offers. That hyperconnected dismounted warrior creating sensor fields fused with high-speed edge computing and AI-driven decisions will directly affect the intelligence gathered and resource allocation without putting any human in harm’s way. “This will increase our lethality and increase our effectiveness in the battlespace,” Clark states.
And 5G multi-access edge computing, or MEC, is just beginning to receive significant attention from the Defense Department, Adm. Simpson says. With MEC, the power of the cloud—communications, compute and storage—will come down to the edge. Processing and other AI components can be carried out at the edge instead of the cloud data center. “If we don’t have to go back to the cloud to sense, decide and act, that’s huge,” the admiral declares.
Part of the Defense Department’s spectrum dominance strategy involves spectrum agility, and the ability to operate in contested environments is a key priority. Adm. Simpson suggests that the military could use signaling techniques that would be inefficient today but effective under 5G. Units could send signals multiple times through multiple paths for reassembly at the endpoint. Smart devices would be able to reconstruct signal sets multiple times to constitute a single communication.
Adm. Simpson offers that 5G and AI will have a symbiotic relationship. “You need not only large data sets; you need complex and diverse data sets so that data diversity is a key part of what will be introduced with 5G,” he allows.
AI and ML will be key enablers for 5G exploitation, Clark says. “It’s about automation. It’s about creating the algorithms to do the compute, based on the sensor information you have, at the edge and turn that data into actionable information in a time window that is relevant,” he explains. Data relevance expires, so the faster data can be consumed into executionable information, the better for the military. Leveraging edge computing with AI and ML in high-speed wireless 5G networks constitute critical components of the equation, he adds.
With this automation will come security. Clark describes the security of both networks and data traveling over them as paramount. For example, anyone who can hack an autonomous vehicle to the point where they can turn it off has just created a weapon system. Zero trust has received most of the focus, while other research probes quantum key distribution and quantum key entropy where true random number generators create encryption keys of any length. Along with zero-trust software-defined perimeter, key entropy could generate virtual private networks that help protect data in transit over any hardware worldwide. This also would help deal with the issue of a compromised electronics supply chain.
Adm. Simpson lauds zero trust security for 5G. “We have to be able to communicate in a way that anticipates breach,” he declares. “The elements of zero trust architecture are very key for 5G deployments, and we have a lot of work to do—not so much in the concepts of zero trust architecture; we know what that looks like. But how do you stitch that together when you want to achieve all these big data analytical effects and bring AI out to the edge?”
The admiral allows that cybersecurity is a foundational design element for 5G in the U.S. commercial market. Engineers have brought that concept into the 5G protocol, although “we’re not completely where we need to be,” he observes. “There is a whole lot of implementation discretion given to vendors when you actually deploy 5G, and we need a whole lot more attention there than we’ve paid in the past. But the potential to be more secure in 5G is there,” he states.
One aspect holding back 5G security is its need to be backward compatible in the commercial marketplace, Adm. Simpson offers. With 4G using a 30-year-old switching protocol, security was designed for a closed-loop system by a single provider. Now, with the Wild West environment characterizing cell connectivity, authentication procedures are vastly inefficient. For the military, the Defense Department can insist on an implementation that doesn’t expose its 5G networks to the earlier protocol. The department also can use encryption within slices, the admiral suggests, to ensure their security. Slice mission owners will need to define the thresholds for security, he adds.
Adm. Simpson says that the Defense Department should eschew opting for a single carrier and instead pursue multiple carriers to leverage continuous downward pricing pressure. “The Defense Department needs to be thinking of multicarrier implementations on bases—infrastructure as a service on the bases from the companies that then sell that to the carriers themselves,” he posits. Bases would have different providers in the same way that neighborhoods are served by a range of competitive cell companies. “We don’t want to be less capable on an installation. We want to be more capable,” he says.
“We have to get past this notion that how we operate 4G is the right approach to how we operate 5G,” Adm. Simpson adds. “Going from principally consumer-oriented devices to the IoT, the Internet of public safety things and the Internet of battlefield things needs a different operational construct.
“The providers aren’t going to give that to us,” he continues. “They’re creating capabilities with a lot of potential, but how we implement is really up to the user of that.”
One important activity underway today has industry and academia coordinating their efforts, Clark offers. “There is a lot of ingenuity here in the United States, and we have a lot of competitive advantages in software and spectrum agility along with our ability to innovate across all of the sciences.
“We need speed and scale,” Clark continues. “We need to get faster; we need to scale what we’re doing; we need to collaborate and coordinate so we’re not duplicating efforts. We’re sharing best practices; we’re creating centers of excellence so certain research institutes and labs in 5G economic zones … mutually benefit from the work that’s being done.
“The United States needs to continue its global leadership in 5G and compete forward with an arguably trillion-dollar 5G ecosystem,” Clark says. “We need to create jobs, companies, technologies, software and IP, and we need to export those technologies to coalition, friendly and underprivileged nations to help them improve their economies as well.
“It is going to take time, and it’s going to be patchwork, and a financial incentive and ease of deployment will have a lot to do with where people get connectivity,” Clark states.