Verizon courts public safety with 5G, Super Bowl ad

Not one to let its lead in the public safety market slip to rival AT&T, which won the FirstNet contract in 2017, Verizon is courting public safety with the latest and greatest in technologies that use 5G.

Granted, 5G is not yet widely deployed—Verizon this week just announced its 5G Ultra Wideband is now live in parts of Little Rock, Arkansas; Kansas City, Missouri; and Cincinnati, Ohio. So Verizon is using 5G first responder labs to work with startups and innovators around the country that are developing leading-edge solutions. This past week, five startups participated in a graduation of sorts at an event in San Francisco. Previous graduations have been held in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Verizon works with the startups for 12 weeks. One of the startups at this week’s event, Lumineye, developed wall-penetrating radar sensing to help first responders identify people through walls. Another one, Zeroeyes, offers an active shooter type of solution that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to actively monitor camera feeds to detect weapons.

Verizon has featured 5G-related firefighting applications in TV commercials leading up to the Super Bowl, where that theme will continue this weekend. There are myriad reasons for running the commercials, but part of it boils down to a desire to let people know that 5G isn’t just for consumer and enterprise segments.

“What we want to do is make sure that we continue to innovate and develop our network to be better for first responders. 5G is absolutely a part of that,” said Nick Nilan, director of Product Development, Public Sector, at Verizon. “We want to make sure that we’re developing 5G solutions for our first responders at the same time.”

A technology from Qwake is featured in a commercial that shows how firefighters can use it to see through smoke. Older technologies in the market can do something similar with thermal imaging, but that’s bulky and this allows the firefighter to keep their hands free and see what’s going on, Nilan said. The technology also has to work with the firefighter’s existing helmet and other gear.

Verizon's Ultra Wideband 5G service uses millimeter wave spectrum. Engineers have learned a lot about how millimeter wave works and how devices connect to it. “We’re continuing to learn about how to better deploy the networks, but we’re pretty confident that we will have the right networks in place to be able to power these solutions for first responders that rely on it,” he told Fierce. “It’s definitely a technological challenge that we’re overcoming.”

It’s worth noting that these solutions for public safety also need to work over existing 4G LTE networks.

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Even though states opted into FirstNet, that doesn’t force every public safety, firefighting or EMS agency to opt in, and that’s obviously important to Verizon, which still serves the majority of first responders in the U.S., according to Nilan.

“We believe every first responder/public safety agency should have the ability to choose the best network and best network partner for them,” he added.   

In fact, Verizon doesn’t believe every first responder will be on the same network nationwide. Some of them get their cell phone service through their agency and others bring their personal device. It depends on what works best for them in a given geography.

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What’s important is that the networks work together. When the plan for FirstNet was drafted after September 11, 2001, there was a lack of interoperability between networks. “Now, in 2020, we have the advantage of interoperable standards built into our cellular networks,” he said.

The industry has solved, through standards, a lot of the interoperability issues between networks as well as between LMR networks and cellular. “We want to make sure that continues,” he said.