5G a chance for agency improvement — slowly but surely

From a security perspective, the deployment of new equipment, software and virtualized technology to manage communications networks and carrying over some legac...

From telemedicine to smart cities, to more reliable 911 call centers, the federal government’s lead cybersecurity agency sees 5G as an opportunity to improve. It is also an opportunity for risk.

From a security perspective, the deployment of new equipment, software and virtualized technology to manage communications networks and carrying over some legacy systems are important, according to Bob Kolasky, assistant director of the National Risk Management Center at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

“Really, what we are talking about here is having the ability to have better software security to isolate systems to understand source of risk, to keep things from cascading and to anticipate that, so that as more things are connected, as we require them to be reliable, the network itself is not just a small network that can be exploited,” Kolasky said during a 5G-focused web event with federal technology leaders on Tuesday sponsored by NextGov. “It is isolated elements of which can be managed and things can be seen invisible, and we can deal with issues as they emerge.”

When deploying a 5G network, an operator typically has an existing 4G deployment that will merged with the new generation, Thyagarajan Nandagopal, acting deputy division director for National Science Foundation’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorate, said. For about a decade NSF has been funding research into the 5G network advances playing out today.

“In the earliest stages of the standards, which is where we are right now, the first release of the standards happened about three years ago, the second release just happened last year,” he said. “This is what it calls nonstandalone mode of operation, and both of them are deployed next to each other, but then you’re primarily using a big chunk of the LTE network as well” — LTE being the standard for 4G communications, while “new radio” will be the standard for 5G communication.

Nandagopal said that as equipment is replaced over time, customers will migrate out of LTE and switch to a standalone, full-fledged 5G core network.

He cited the Defense Department’s experiments with their owned spectrum to instantiate a custom 5G network, as an example of possible business cases for agencies. In addition, he said the Department of Homeland Security could run a 5G network for your field agents in a certain geographic area — entirely managed in-house, by a third-party vendor or leased from a wireless carrier such as Verizon or AT&T — 4G does not afford that flexibility.

“You suddenly have at your disposal as a federal agency, looking at operational point of view, many options,” Nandagopal said. “You have anyone who could come in and deploy a 5G network for you or run it to offer to you as a service.”

That said, Verizon, AT&T and T Mobile all partnered with the federal government to deploy 5G. Dr. Ryan Vega, Diffusion of Excellence lead at the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Innovation, said this is important to encourage competition and diversity in the marketplace. With emerging technologies – no less so with 5G — each company will have their own niche. Vega said from an innovation standpoint, it helps VA to learn from multiple providers simultaneously. He also said this would help the department set standards for 5G in health care writ large.

Asked how long it will take to see 5G technology at scale across the VA, Vega said it will take time but advised a mantra of “think slow and act fast.” He wants to see deliberate, human-centric design to integrate the new technology in a care delivery or service experience.

“I think you’re going to see over the next three to five years, it become more commonplace that surgeons in the operating room are utilizing this sort of advanced computer spatial technology to render these holographic images, right? We’re seeing it picked up on both the federal and commercial side, that’s going to become more commonplace as we become more comfortable with those use cases and applications,” Vega said. “Equally, I think more and more connected devices in the home, more acute care, being able to deliver to the home — those things you’ll see accelerating.”

As for what is next in the 5G pipeline, he teased some upcoming activity in Orlando and Lake Nona, Florida, over the next couple of months but declined to give more specifics.

“I think the next iteration of what this landscape looks like from an infrastructure standpoint for VA, is really creating the capability to test and evaluate these emerging technologies in a more simulated world, to better inform what solutions are going to work best for our clinicians and patients,” Vega said. “But that’s going to be probably our big focus for this fiscal year.”

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