How 5G Could Prevent Internet Disruptions During a Natural Disaster

Expert Gerhard Fettweis explains the advantages

18 January 2018

For many, access to the Internet during a natural disaster is critical so they can let loved ones know they’re not in danger and to get information about where to go for food and shelter. When service gets knocked out, as it did in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck the island in September, panic ensues.

Residents of Puerto Rico access the Internet primarily through their cellphones, and more than 95 percent of the U.S. island territory’s cell towers were crippled, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Google X’s Project Loon was deployed to restore service. Outfitted with two main radio transceivers, the project uses airborne balloons as floating cell towers. Even though about 90 percent of telecom service was restored by last month, the Loon balloons were still providing service to 100,000 people.

The Loon project was effective in bringing communication to a territory that was almost entirely cut off, but IEEE Fellow Gerhard Fettweis looks ahead to how 5G could prevent disruptions during national disasters and be less expensive than the balloons. Fettweis is cochair of the IEEE 5G Initiative.

What advantages does 5G have over Project Loon?

We need to understand that the loss of Internet access in Puerto Rico was caused by a widespread electrical outage, so whatever technology is used has to have its own secure electrical backup system. In remote areas, 5G base stations would have an autonomous power source in case of loss of electricity. Terrestrial systems are much cheaper than sending balloons into the area.

Project Loon has its own power station sitting in the balloons sailing 20 kilometers above Earth. The advantage of the balloons is that they can be deployed as needed, whereas a base station is more a preemptive system, set up not knowing whether it will ever be needed. But in Puerto Rico, because hurricanes hit every so often, it’s cheaper to build a base station than to deploy balloons each time.

However, providing access to those living in remote locations is not something that companies working to deploy 5G are going to initially offer. But providing this kind of connectivity is one of the top concerns for the IEEE 5G Initiative.

Why would a 5G network be cheaper than the balloons?

It’s always cheaper to have something in a fixed, encased structure than in the air. Balloons are costly because several need to be deployed, the infrastructure must be in place to support them, and the amount of power they use. Plus, the position of the balloons moves with the airflow, and therefore the radio transceivers wiggle around and are not fixed at one position. All this is more expensive than having a small local generator and energy backup sitting next to the base station. The generator or battery will last for up to three years versus about three weeks.

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Why didn’t the cell towers in Puerto Rico have their own power source?

U.S. operators typically try to run their networks at a fairly low cost so most cell towers have little or no backup. Backup systems are prominent in many places where the power supply is unreliable. The vast majority of India’s base stations run on diesel generators because the country’s power grid is flaky. Even though European power supply is more reliable than in the United States, regulators require crucial cell stations to have a backup power supply that runs 24 hours, and a continuous power supply if the grid fails. In the end, this is a strategic decision to be taken country by country.

When analyzing power outages one must differentiate between unstable power grids and outages due to natural disasters. In Puerto Rico, from what I understand, not only were the power plants damaged but the hurricane also snapped the electrical cables so the loss of power was mainly from damaged cables.

Is the IEEE 5G Initiative talking to telecoms in Puerto Rico about the benefits of 5G?

No. It’s not possible to introduce an expensive new technology to an area where lack of money is a major issue. However, the situation opens up opportunities later on to provide access for remote areas that don’t get coverage during a disaster.  What’s more, 5G has yet to be deployed because technical standards are still needed. In December, the standards group 3GPP issued the first 5G specification in Release 15, which describes Non-Standalone 5G New Radio. It only covers the wireless radio part, not the network.

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