5G Prospects and Challenges

Published: April 21, 2021

Federal Market AnalysisMobilityWireless

With great potential in the next generation of wireless technology comes great concern and a hope to advance federal opportunities in 5G.

Key Takeaways:

  • Panelists at a 5G event in early April discussed the wireless technology’s significance, challenges and current initiatives in the federal government.
  • With the threat landscape expanding under 5G, federal experts call out the lack of security standards and training that exist throughout a spectra of groups.
  • 5G platforms will facilitate advanced technologies such as AI/ML, edge computing, AR/VR and robotics.

As the next generation of wireless technology, 5G is poised to transform the future of business and society.  Greater networking capacity, faster throughput, improved connectivity, enhanced security, and computing inside the edge of the network are just some of the advantages 5G provides. At the 5G Summit hosted by Federal News Network and AT&T earlier this month, moderator Jason Serbu kicked off the event stating “5G is a whole of government project,” lending the fact that 5G is a key priority in security, the economy, and in maintaining global leadership. Panelists at the event included Dan Elmore, Executive Director of the Wireless Security Institute at Idaho National Laboratory (INL); Jody Little, Executive Program Manager at Joint Base San Antonio; and Tao Zhang, Manager of Emerging Technology Group at NIST.

A Breadth of Potential

As 5G technology develops over the next decade, 5G network performance will far exceed its predecessors and enable new applications, according to a January GAO report. Examples of 5G potential in network and application performance include:

  • Lower latency
  • Increase connection density
  • Energy efficiency
  • Spectrum efficiency
  • Enhance mobile broadband
  • Empower massive machine type communications

Tao Zhang offered two main reasons 5G technology will be revolutionary: capacity and capability, and the promise to provide differentiated and optimized support for different types of applications. The panelist provided an example of 5G providing a key piece in the edge computing puzzle. The wireless technology will deliver better performance by keeping data close to the user, while also increasing security protection of local systems through credential management and establishing trust relationships.  

Hindrances in 5G Implementation

It’s not all roses when it comes to 5G, however, as panelists at the summit were quick to note two key challenges in its implementation: security and education. Dan Elmore offered the fact that very few 5G standards are mandatory, so the federal space must do some independent validation of the technology’s manufacturing. Zhang furthered the discussion by explaining that while 5G may offer security in some way, it opens newer security challenges in other ways – areas yet to be addressed. For example, new technologies and architectures that 5G introduces, (i.e. network virtualization and software-defined networking) virtualized software layers that were not there before require more security requirements. Moreover, Zhang expressed the need to protect network slices, and ensure the ability to isolate compromised slices from going to others. Therefore, 5G security must go beyond just connectivity.

Jody Little agreed and stated DOD must figure out how to secure the slices and identify risk of compromise. Moreover, the defense sector must secure and accredit applications to stay secure, especially considering additional DOD standards. Little added that there are few 5G cybersecurity trainings going on in the federal and academic spaces – a key priority to further 5G development.

Elmore agreed, stating that the threat surface has expanded under 5G and training is essential to think about security from the beginning of 5G development. While he acknowledged some universities pushing secure systems, disciplines such as civil and electrical engineering need to all be talking about cybersecurity. Little added that the national and DOD 5G strategies that have been issued require levels of security and analysis to build the base envisioned by the plans. Now that the documents are out and leadership is backing 5G, he said, the devil is in the details and will be the 5G sector’s challenges for the next few years.

Federal 5G Research

These challenges, however, are not stopping the federal government from moving forward in 5G experimentations. At INL for example, the focus is on shorter-term (3-5yr) solutions, stated Elmore. The lab is experimenting with millimeter waves, new spectrum areas, how to deploy 5G securely, and how to apply 5G to drones. The lab also has a large test range to enable clients and customers to validate solutions at scale.

The second part of the 5G Summit hosted several DOD experts commenting on 5G impact in defense operations. One of the panelists, Dan Massey 5G Program Manager at DOD, stated that over 100 contracts are now in place under Tranche 1 (5G implementation at DOD sites will to roll out in phases referred to as “tranches”). Massey explained several different 5G experiments going on at the agency, including supply chain management at warehouses, how 5G extends to a massive number of devices, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality (AR/VR), small warehouses and 5G testing for spectrum-sharing work. DOD 5G testbed sites are located at each of the military services, and backed by funding from Congress. While Massey explained that Tranche 1 contracts are relatively new and DOD is still learning from the initiatives, the convergence and support by DOD leaders, Congress and each military service reveals the significance of 5G.

Moving forward, 5G is poised to excel other emerging technology fields such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML). The next generation wireless technology will provide the platform needed to expand transformative technologies, taking data and operational capabilities to the next level. The urgency to implement 5G successfully is even greater in order to establish credibility and get to 6G. As Dan Elmore simply put it, “we need to get our arms around 5G because it is coming.”