The budding emergence of fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks is being preceded by the usual advance guard of hype that comes with any new stage of wireless development. But while some of the promises being thrown around by service providers won’t take shape for several years, if at all, 5G will provide tangible benefits that government agencies could start planning for now.

Most noticeably, 5G wireless will provide significantly faster speeds. 5G will operate at higher frequencies with more bandwidth than current 4G networks, and while early projections from wireless carriers vary widely, estimates are that 5G will be five to 20 times faster, on average, than 4G LTE, with less latency. That’s good news for people watching movies on their phones or going whole hog on immersive gaming, but it also can help improve services provided by the government.

One area that could particularly benefit is emergency response. With people relying on their smartphones for everything from communications to shopping, more are employing smartphone capabilities to make 911 calls through non-voice means including texting, sending video, and even using social media. During disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, social media especially can become an essential ad hoc emergency network. And although emergency response organizations still recommend a voice call if at all possible, better, faster wireless connectivity would make a difference as the ways that people contact emergency services become more varied.

Aside from 911 calls, 5G will open a lot of other doors for first response organizations, including maintaining critical communications during emergencies, providing better situational awareness (which typically relies on data feeds from multiple sources), locating people indoors, and operating drones and other robotic systems. As well, the greater bandwidth provided by 5G can allow response organizations to run predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning applications on-site while their emergency efforts are ongoing.

Verizon is one company looking to get in front of a wave of new emergency applications. This month Verizon announced a partnership with Responder to open a 5G First Responder Lab, planned as an incubator where startups and other innovators will be able to work with 5G technology on creating new public safety solutions. During 2019, the lab will bring in 15 innovators in three groups, each for three-month stints at Verizon’s 5G DC Lab in Washington, D.C., to collaborate on practical 5G solutions that can be delivered to first responders around the country, the companies said. Interested innovators have a Dec. 31 deadline for applying to be part of the first group to work at the lab, located at Alley, a membership community of entrepreneurs working with Verizon’s 5G network.

Meanwhile, AT&T says it has been preparing the FirstNet pubic safety broadband network overseen by the Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority, for 5G, so that it will be able to move to 5G services via a software upgrade.

Wireless carriers are deploying sections of their 5G networks and will continue through 2019, but full 5G service isn’t quite around the corner. Telecom companies will be able to build on existing 4G networks to a point, but 5G will require some substantial infrastructure upgrades, including improving the efficiency of antennas and radio interfaces to accommodate bandwidth demands, and shifting electromagnetic spectrum access from 2G and 3G to 5G.

Among other benefits of 5G that would involve government agencies are enhanced Internet of Things performance (including such things as infrastructure monitors, surveillance systems, and, of course, drones), self-driving cars (and the sensor-laden roadways they’ll drive on), and remote medical applications including remote robotic surgery. Many of those applications are likely years away, but in the meantime, first response organizations and other government agencies are looking for their next killer apps.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.