Insight by T-Mobile for Government

Agencies look toward new emergency networks when disaster strikes

Fifth-generation wireless networks are expected to provide a leap in performance above legacy 4G communications, but first responders can still face the prospect of congested and unavailable communications networks during a natural disaster.

Agencies are eyeing a range of possibilities to take advantage of 5G advances, but perhaps no application is more urgent than ensuring and even boosting connectivity to aide disaster response.

In October, the Defense Department announced it would begin prototyping a private 5G communications network for first responders in California, where firefighters, the National Guard and others have been battling historic wildfires in recent years.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology arm is also developing secure and resilient emergency mobile networks for first responders in conjunction with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Disaster response is among the areas where wireless companies are getting the most interest from agencies, according to Mark McDiarmid, senior vice president for radio network engineering and development at T-Mobile USA.

“We’ve been working very closely with government agencies on research and development projects to figure out, how do we bring relief coverage into areas that have been possibly devastated by high winds,” McDiarmid said. “One of the challenges of wireless technologies is wind doesn’t mix very well with antenna structures.”

He said agencies are looking at drones as one possible solution when traditional networks go down.

“We’re collaborating with the U.S. government on new forms of drone-based coverage where we can fly base stations several hundred feet above ground and power them for many tens of days to provide relief coverage,” McDiarmid said.

Agencies are also looking to use 5G to bolster their drone operations, which rely on wireless connections. That includes an increasing reliance on drones to provide better situational awareness, according to Patricia Watkins, vice president of partner and IoT sales at T-Mobile.

“You can survey, you can do search and rescue,” Watkins said. “These are the kinds of things we’re seeing federal and government agencies looking toward, as well as starting proof-of-concepts and looking at how they can deploy these into their operations.”

Local networks also see massive increases in traffic during emergencies, which can lead to congestion for first responders trying to communicate and coordinate their activities. But wireless networks can now be configured to give responding personnel the top priority when it comes to routing traffic during an emergency.

“Through mechanisms in 4G and 5G, we can prioritize access and bandwidth in such way that wireless priority service can be given to first responders,” McDiarmid said.

Featured speakers

  • Mark McDiarmid

    SVP, Radio Network Engineering and Development, T-Mobile USA

  • Patricia Watkins

    Vice President, IoT and Partner Solutions, T-Mobile for Business