Military Embedded Systems

How private cellular can streamline military base operations


November 20, 2023

Mark DeVol


U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Ryan Kennelly.

5G, the fifth generation of wireless communication technology, promises faster data speeds, plus 5G could also revolutionize the accuracy of location services, including GPS. The key lies in the higher frequency bands that 5G operates on, known as millimeter waves. These waves have a shorter range but higher capacity, enabling more precise location tracking. Currently, 4G LTE networks provide location accuracy to within 10 to 500 meters, depending on the density of cell towers. In contrast, 5G technology can potentially pinpoint a device’s location to within a meter, thanks to its higher frequency bands and advanced beamforming technology. Moreover, 5G networks are designed to support a vast number of devices within a small area. This high device density can contribute to improved location accuracy. With more devices connected in a given area, the network can triangulate a device’s position more accurately. This is particularly beneficial in dense or urban areas, where buildings often interfere with GPS signals, leading to inaccuracies.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) continues to invest in the growing use of 5G, most recently through initiatives such as a 5G Challenge and even within the last few years with its “5G to Future-G” initiative. More specifically, the DoD has shown interest in how private 5G, and private cellular in general, can meet military needs. The DoD has recently been known as the organization that spends the most on purchases related to private 5G. As the DoD continues its push to leverage private 5G throughout the U.S. military, there exists an opportunity to learn some of the ways in which private 5G and private cellular can provide alternative methods of communication that are flexible and secure to many bases throughout the military.

A dependable network

At each base of operations, whether foreign or domestic, military personnel need a dependable network for daily communication and day-to-day tasks. For example, upon initial entry into a location, soldiers set up a foreign base of operations (FOB) or a tactical operations center. Commonly, these bases are meant to be temporary. However, there are instances where military personnel remain in the location for more than 30 days. In these cases, the personnel at the base need a durable network that can last as long as the soldiers remain in the area.

Personnel from Warner Robins Air Force base in Georgia recently investigated this scenario to see how they could leverage private cellular to create that dependable, resilient network. They discovered that a private cellular network can connect with many of the wide area network (WAN) connections in place – such as the satellite links commonly used in the Air Force – while providing both primary and failover connectivity that is necessary for mission-critical communications. The failover capabilities are especially important: With a private cellular network, even if the private network loses connectivity for outside communications, soldiers can still use the private network as a local area network to send communications on base.

Streamlining data sharing

Private cellular can also open possibilities that will streamline data sharing within a base. Let’s take a look at the Air Force, for example. The Air Force is currently looking to modernize technology in its fleets through its Flight Line of the Future initiative. In alignment with that initiative, this branch uses a self-­developed program called eTools/eTools Lite to upload blueprints or plans for repairs to aircrafts. Historically, aircraft mechanics were restricted to downloading those blueprints to a device at the base – where they had access to connectivity – then taking those plans to the aircraft. Unfortunately, if there was an update in the plan or there was information missing, the mechanic would have to go back to the hangar, download new blueprints, and then return to the aircraft. Now, bases use commercial cellular to get rid of this time-consuming step in the process.

With a private cellular network, however, the base would be able to put up a dedicated network that extends to where the aircraft are at any point in time. This move would enable tablets to access the blueprints without leaving the aircraft. Also, there’s an added layer of security and control with the private network, as IT or cybersecurity personnel would be able to dictate who or which devices were able to access those blueprints.

The data-sharing benefits that private 5G or LTE provide can also extend to vessels approaching a Navy or Marine base. If Navy or Marine bases established a private 5G network that extended past the shore into nearby waters, incoming vessels could connect to the network and begin sharing data once the base is within sight of the vessel. Implementing such a littoral network would streamline ship-to-shore communications without compromising sensitive information.

Private 5G or LTE can also help streamline military warehouse operations and logistics. Just like a warehouse in a commercial setting, warehouses on a base of operations have IoT devices – such as cameras or sensors – that need to share data on movement and maintenance. A private network could become especially important as the military tracks high-value assets, such as missiles or important machinery. With private 5G or LTE, personnel at the warehouse would be able to securely share updates as those assets come into a base or leave a base of operations. (Figure 1.)

[Figure 1 ǀ Personnel at Eglin Air Force Base (Florida) can use scanners to manage the warehouse inventory and streamline storage procedures. U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.]

Choosing the right option

While there are many use cases that demonstrate the benefits of private cellular for military bases – and government funding to subsidize private cellular implementation – it’s important for military personnel to consider at least seven things to choose the right private cellular option for their base:

  • Clearly identify the problems to solve: It’s important to first ask questions about specific base needs. Do personnel require more flexibility for certain tasks? Do areas of the base suffer from unreliable connectivity? Do infrastructure limitations impede connectivity for IoT devices? Understanding operational barriers is important before deploying a private cellular network.
  • Gather information about your environment: The physical location of the base is a key consideration before implementing a cellular network. This includes analysis of coverage needs, as well as technical requirements for devices and applications based upon the operational hurdles that personnel at the base are trying to solve.
  • Establish key performance indicators (KPIs): KPIs can include network uptime, personnel hours, data expenditures. It’s important to revisit these regularly in case adjustments to the private cellular network become necessary.
  • Investigate infrastructure providers: As military personnel consider their operational problems and analyze their physical location, it will be important to look specifically at the services from potential private cellular providers and decide if those services can solve specific operational needs.
  • Design a proof of concept: Military personnel should combine infrastructure solutions and anchor use cases to design a proof of concept that is scalable, future-proof, and able to produce results that align with their KPIs.
  • Conduct a site survey: It’s a good idea to use radio frequency (RF) planning tools to determine the placement of cellular access points and map out private cellular network architecture. Make sure to accom­modate for the location of walls and windows, signal obstructions, and environmental challenges.
  • Get ready to grow: After building the private network, users should conduct a post-deployment verification to test its performance and ensure the network performance is on track to achieve KPIs. If it’s satisfactory, they can then plan for wider deployment and expansion.

Controlling connectivity

One could argue the most important value from private cellular networks is the control they give to the organizations that use them. Operators have complete say in network traffic and network access. However, as the saying goes, “with more power comes more responsibility.” Often, managing and establishing that private network comes with complexities, and at certain bases this could present somewhat of a hurdle. It’s not uncommon for certain military personnel to be responsible for setting up a network even though their expertise lies elsewhere. Military personnel interested in using the funding from the DoD to establish private 5G networks must therefore craft an installation plan that makes both curating and maintaining a private network as simple as possible. With the right private 5G solution, setting up a network could take minutes without compromising the control, flexibility, and security necessary to streamline operations at any military base.

Mark DeVol is the Federal Area Vice President for Cradlepoint and also has direct sales responsibility for the U.S. Department of Defense. For three decades Mark has worked with the DoD, federal civilian departments, state and local agencies, wireless and cable operators, educational institutions, and utility companies.

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