When lives are on the line, 5G can make a difference

14 May 2024
Verizon's THOR unit deploys 5G networks in response to wildfires, hurricanes and wherever it is needed. Source: Verizon

When 5G network functionality was still up for definition among leading telecommunications standards organizations, there was a purposeful intent to offer new safety and public service features that would provide a public and humanitarian benefit.

The organizing consortium that sets universal communication standards like 5G is a group known as the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). This consists of members from:

  • European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI)
  • Association of Radio Industries and Businesses (ARIB) of Japan
  • Telecommunication Technology Committee (TTC) of Japan
  • Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) of North America
  • Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) of North America
  • China Communications Standards Association (CCSA)

In addition to telecommunication professionals and government agencies, representatives of emergency service providers, technology providers, public safety organizations and regulatory bodies, both at the national and international levels, were included in the discussion.

5G vs 4G for emergency response

There was growing awareness that a transformative wireless protocol like 5G could be transformative in emergency situations.

To fulfill the objective of improving safety response, functionality had to be improved or added. There are several key functional differences between 4G and 5G that enable improved information gathering and sharing from first responders.


4G has upload speed capability of about 50 Mbps; the 5G network has upload speeds up to 10 Gbps depending on network traffic.


Latency is currently in the range of 30 ms to 50 ms with 4G and improving to as low as 1 ms with 5G. Low latency enables time critical functions like remote vehicle operation and tracking rapid changes to flood or fire conditions, for example.


5G was specifically designed with a density of up to 1 million devices per square kilometer. This was done to accommodate internet of things expansion, but also serves high network demand. Time and again, victims of severe storms, terrorism attacks and more have struggled to call home due to overloaded cellular networks.


4G networks were designed to use sub 6 GHz frequencies which gave wider coverage to devices but at a lower bandwidth. 5G can use both sub 6 GHz as well as millimeter wave (mmWave). mmWave has a higher bandwidth (30 GHz to 300 GHz) but a shorter propagation distance, requiring denser infrastructure. This also allows for more precise geo-location services. This could be critical in search and rescue situations by generating much more accurate location information.

Network slicing

Network slicing was implemented with 5G, allowing for creation of dedicated virtual networks with their own parameters. It could be used to create an “emergency response” slice that would wall off emergency services and keep non-emergency activity off the emergency slice. So as cellular networks contend with thousands of civilians, emergency responses aren’t completing for network bandwidth.

Beam forming and massive MIMO

Whereas 4G used antenna technology which was a wide broadcasting technique and not very efficient, 5G uses beam forming to narrow the channel and Massive MIMO (Multiple-In, Multiple-Out) which improves spectral efficiency, coverage and overall network performance, by using an array of more than 100 antennas. Moving from 4G to 5G increases the number of dedicated emergency communication elements making it “massively” more reliable and capable of error correction, especially from reflected signals in urban spaces.

Responding to emergent network needs

Setting up operational rules for a 5G network to be used in emergency and disaster aid scenarios requires the expertise of a variety of disciplines. These include regulatory and standards bodies and public safety organizations.

But most critical are the technology providers – the ones who experience the real-time shortcomings of the network in actual emergency situations. Functionality means complexity. On-scene implementation and operation of the network falls to telecommunications professionals for real-time support and workarounds during an emergency so that the network operates as intended under a variety of adverse conditions.

Relationships between network operators and governments in the U.S. are typically managed by the Wireless Emergency Alerts service, which is a public-private partnership between the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and wireless carriers. This allows government officials to, for example, send Amber Alerts and severe warning messages to devices within a particular geographic area.

In a 5G network, Amber Alerts or severe weather messages can arrive that much sooner, potentially saving lives by making the general public aware of important threats.

Provisions for emergency communication and mechanisms for overriding other messages during critical situations are automatic during an emergency.

  • Controlled access: Priority transmission is given to emergency communication over regular traffic. During an emergency, authorized entities have higher priority and their transmissions are sent without delay.
  • Quality of Service (QoS): This includes guaranteed bandwidth, low latency and high reliability, even during congested network conditions.
  • Emergency broadcast services (EBS): including Amber Alerts, severe weather warnings, evacuation notices and instructions during natural disasters or other emergencies.
  • Priority access: There are up to eight QoS classes, the ability to set a minimum bandwidth, network slicing and dedicated emergency channels within the MIMO structure. In combination, these are the specific mechanisms used to create clear pathways to prioritize emergency transmissions.
  • Geo-fencing and location services: Geo-fencing and location-based services can target emergency alerts and notifications to specific geographic regions. Only individuals within the impacted area are contacted minimizing unnecessary panic or confusion. Or they can be used to find individuals using more precision triangulation techniques.


This is a still burgeoning technology. But the human impact it can make is immense and is supported by a rare very strong public-private partnership.

In recent years, Verizon has deployed its tactical humanitarian operations response (THOR) vehicle to more than 175 wildfires and more than 60 hurricane responses in the U.S. Once there, they establish a temporary ultra-wideband 5G network that helps keep first responders in reliable communication with data packets of sizes.

No, this hasn’t made an impact on the everyday fender bender – but there is a real possibility that it could, seeing as the automobile V2X movement is on the horizon. And that’s when 5G might feel less like a communications network, more like a safety net.

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