What role will 5G play in delivering critical communications?

The Critical Communications Association (TCCA)
By Jason Johur*
Friday, 15 October, 2021

What role will 5G play in delivering critical communications?

5G networks promise greater capabilities to critical users but further specification work is needed to ensure their unique requirements are met.

A new white paper from TCCA, the global organisation for the advancement of standardised critical communications technologies, says that ultimately, 5G will enable cooperation between critical users to become more efficient and effective. As a result, the safety of first responders and the communities they protect will be enhanced.

5G opens up the potential for a range of services, most notably driven by 5G’s reliable low-latency communications and support for massive machine-type device deployments. For first responders, this means control rooms will have a far more accurate view of a situation and can better allocate people and resources. Information can be shared between agencies seamlessly, via cloud-based application platforms.

5G capabilities relevant to critical comms

3GPP Releases 15 and 16 have specified functionality and interfaces required to offer 5G networks supporting enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) and voice-over-new-radio (VoNR) services. They also laid the foundation for advanced critical communications services such as massive IoT, critical IoT and MCX over NR.

Release 17 (expected June 2022) is targeting the initial functionality to provide MCX over a 5G SA network. MC functionality comparable to LTE is expected to be finalised in Release 17 for unicast services and Release 18 for multicast/broadcast services; the latter expected to be completed in 1H 2023.

It may be recalled that MCX over 4G LTE have already been specified by 3GPP, thus allowing the delivery of these services over an LTE network. Although 5G (3GPP Releases 15-18) contains a myriad of new functional capabilities that could be considered relevant to critical communication users, a summary of the ones with greatest impact are as follows:

  • MC Services over 5G: principally the porting of all MCX services to 5G NR
  • 5G multicast and broadcast services (5MBS): enabling more efficient and effective usage of spectral resources for group-based communications consisting of mission-critical voice, data and video services and support for high concentrations of public safety users operating in large groups within a small incident area.
  • Device-to-device communications using Sidelink: enabling the capability for proximity services (5G ProSe) and vehicle-to-X (V2X) services, addressing device-to-device (D2D) short-range communication use cases in environments with limited or non-existent network coverage.
  • Network slicing: providing the ability to slice a single physical network into many virtual ‘private’ networks with widely differing network service characteristics.
  • Enhanced network security: further mechanisms to protect the integrity, confidentiality and availability of the network services and user data.
  • Isolated operation for public safety (IOPS): originally introduced in 3GPP Release 13, IOPS over 5G systems is being defined in Release 17.
  • Advanced congestion management: improvements to support differentiation of mission-critical users and services during times of peak congestion.
  • Enhancements for railway communications: driven by the future rail mobile communications system (FRMCS) initiative, it will enable interworking and future migration of existing rail mobile communications from GSM-R and TETRA, and the provision of new broadband-enabled services.
  • 5G non-terrestrial networks (NTN): expanding coverage solutions to places with no terrestrial coverage and involving use of satellites as well as networks, or segments of networks, using an airborne or spaceborne vehicle for transmission, such as high-altitude platforms (HAPs) and unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

What role will 5G play for critical communications users?

The evolution from mission-critical, voice-centric narrowband technologies to mission-critical, information-centric mobile broadband services started with functionality introduced in 3GPP Release 12 (‘4G LTE’). The use cases addressed by 4G LTE have initially been focused on the use of mission-critical data and video and received favourable feedback in addressing the initial needs of critical communication users.

With the introduction of 5G, the boundary of mobile broadband networking will be pushed to new levels, with the obvious potential to increase user operational efficiencies further. New 5G capabilities include not only a further development of mission-critical services but also new ways of performance monitoring and service assurance, as well as new ‘hybrid’ network deployment models that optimise users’ experience and adapt to available spectrum, regulation and agencies operational requirements. In summary, these capabilities will deliver improvements in two distinct ways:

  • Enhancing use cases currently enabled by 4G LTE.
  • Creating new and emerging use cases, previously not viable with earlier generations.

Use cases enabled by 4G LTE and further enhanced with 5G

With mission-critical 4G LTE, many use cases can already be addressed and deployed (or are being deployed). Common examples are listed here and have been widely discussed amongst TCCA stakeholders and the wider community.

Situational awareness

Being aware of events related to an incident, in time and space, is a key area where the introduction of broadband will play a pivotal role. Combining enhanced X, Y and Z positioning capability together with 10 to 100 times more connected devices per square kilometre will enable the collection and processing of a large amount of data from a wide variety of mobile-connected sources for real-time pattern matching using big data technologies.

In practice, this means, for example, connecting body-worn cameras and cameras in police cars to command centres to identify what is happening at an incident and to gain an overview of the situation as it unfolds. This will ultimately enhance user operations and planning for future emergency response, collecting data and sharing the required processed information to agencies and users in service, while boosting cooperation and enabling more efficient resource management.

Video surveillance and analytics

In addition to cameras hosted in and around emergency services vehicles, cameras can also operate on remotely controlled drones or unmanned vehicles for a better awareness of urgent situations occurring in areas that human beings cannot easily access. Because 5G focuses on massive broadband, it will allow the number of cameras in specific hotspots to be increased where capacity is currently limited by 4G LTE. In addition, higher resolution 4K, 360° cameras or thermal imaging cameras can be used for more precise visual insights.

Remote control and monitoring

5G NR will bring a number of benefits such as ultra-reliable and low-latency communications, which can be used by applications and pave the way to assisted driving and unmanned automated vehicles. This capability will also be important for instance in automating a fleet of high-speed drones with real-time centralised coordination that uses sensors, geo-fencing and/or video analytics to avoid collisions.

Immersive applications for first responders

The introduction of mobile broadband with low latency combined with edge computing opens new possibilities for deploying command and control capabilities. Usage of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will reduce the amount of desk space used by multiple display screens and allow emergency organisations to equip workers with wearable solutions like smart glasses to access data at the scene of an event.

User-friendly operations

Network resource prioritisation and geofencing combined with enhanced parameters for positioning are examples of 5G techniques which can be used by the application layer to automatically connect users in the same area in order to provide more user-friendly operation. This enables more focus on the task at hand and less on the device.


The new level of performance provided by 5G networks will be an important enabler for major e-health and telemedicine applications. Examples include future healthcare and its transformation in terms of preventative, routine and post-operative care. Furthermore, 5G will empower moving ambulances to transmit life-critical data to hospitals, including high-definition video and the outputs of sophisticated medical equipment.

These capabilities, combined with real-time video communication with remote doctors, will make it possible for doctors to diagnose and address problems before patients even arrive at the hospital.

Expected benefits of 5G to user operations

The introduction of 5G will impact network deployment, given the density of cell sites required for high-band 5G and operations. The adoption of a new 3GPP-defined service-based architecture with network functions built to exploit the advantages of cloud technology platform will enable end-to-end resource flexibility, robustness, security and stability of operations.

5G technologies will provide first responders fast and robust communications. It will give the dispatchers an accurate view of a situation and therefore enable them to better allocate resources. The information between agencies can be more easily shared, complemented by cloud-based applications. The sharing of information between police, fire and rescue services and ambulance service is of vital importance and has had weaknesses in previous approaches.

This all means that the cooperation between first responders can be more effective, improve the safety of users and save others’ lives.

*Jason Johur, TCCA Board member, Chair of TCCA’s Broadband Industry Group and Head of Strategy & Market Development for Ericsson’s Mission Critical Networks.

Top image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Wit

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