DoD doubles down on 5G testbeds

Less than a week after submissions closed in the U.S. Department of Defense’s first round of 5G-related RPPs, the agency announced seven new military sites for a second group of 5G testbeds.

Joseph Evans, technical director for 5G in the DoD’s Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, disclosed the new installations Wednesday during a live webcast, bringing the total number of military sites experimenting and testing 5G to 12.

“5G technology is vital to maintaining America’s military and economic advantages. 5G is the fifth-generation of cellular network technology…  DOD’s efforts focus on large-scale experimentation and prototyping of dual-use (military and commercial) 5G technology that will provide high speeds, quicker response times and the ability to handle many more wireless devices than current wireless technology,” stated a press release about the announcement.

The move is also part of the government’s 5G development road map as guided by the DoD’s new 5G strategy.

The department plans to issue a new round of requests for prototype proposals (RPPs) to industry in the coming weeks. The selection process has just started for bids in the first group of 5G RPPs, which Evans is hopeful will be awarded later this summer followed by operational testbeds and experiments by the end of fall.

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That aligns with the 45-60 day timeline Randy Clark, vice chair of the National Spectrum Consortium, cited as typical for the DoD’s bid evaluation, negotiation and award process. It’s an average he hopes remains accurate because of the “overwhelming” number of responses to the first round of RPPs from its members. The coronavirus pandemic could also potentially impact the government’s agility and speed in assessing proposals.

Not just the usual suspects

Clark, who is Client Partner focused on Defense & National Security Agencies for Verizon Enterprise Solutions, couldn’t disclose exactly how many bids were submitted through NSC but characterized it as “exponentially a large number” compared to the organization’s average.

NSC helps members bid for defense contracts under an OTA-based (Other Transaction Agreement) model and the group has seen its ranks increase significantly, growing 35% in 2019 and increasing 25% in the first quarter of 2020 alone.

The NSC’s 305 members include expected players like U.S. operators AT&T and Verizon, as well as OEMs Ericsson and Nokia, and many research universities focused on 5G. However, once the DoD opted to use NSC for 5G research, it “just exploded the ecosystem” to now also include a large number of small innovative companies and non-traditional businesses. These kind of innovator companies don’t typically play in the defense space, but through the consortium bid on government projects and tap NSC help to navigate the unique process of defense contracting.

Clark also pointed to the nature of the RPPs, which were more flexible rather than rigid guidelines, as increasing interest.

“They say ‘here’s a concept, what are your ideas’,” he noted. Still, when it comes to building out a full 5G testbed, as Clark acknowledged, there’s a small group of industry companies with those capabilities. However, 5G enhancement or application definitions lend themselves to a much wider pool.

“Whether you have an antenna or an edge device, or an algorithm for artificial intelligence and machine learning - all of that is fair game in those smaller technical areas, which opens up the capability for small non-traditional with true innovative concepts and technologies to make their way into these testbeds.”

For NSC, a whopping 98.5% of projects include participation by non-traditional (in terms of defense contracting) companies; 59% of project awards there was a nontraditional serving as the prime contractor and 41% were awarded to traditional members who have nontraditional members on their team.

New sites, new 5G focuses

As in the first round of proposals, each of the military sites announced Wednesday have different focuses for 5G testing or experimentation. For example, 5G to supporting ship-wide and pier connectivity at Naval Base Norfolk in Virginia; augmented reality support for maintenance and training at Joint Base San Antonio; enhancing aircraft mission readiness at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; wireless connectivity for Forward Operating Bases (FOB) and Tactical Operations Centers (TOC) at the NTC at Fort Irwin and Fort Hood in Texas, and Camp Pendleton, California.

The DoD is looking to build a 5G core security experimentation network at the Joint Base San Antonio and multiple remote locations.

At Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, the DoD plans to explore bi-direction spectrum sharing both for both military and commercial use. Clark equated spectrum leadership to air dominance.

“Those that own the airwaves, own the battle space. The more agile you can be in congested environments, the higher probability of dominating the environment because you have the comms channels open.”

The last RPP issued in the first round of 5G testbeds sought bids for dynamic spectrum sharing technology as well.

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In industry lingo, commercial DSS usually refers to equipment vendor software technology that enables  mobile operators to utilize the same spectrum and switch back and forth between LTE and 5G NR technology depending on need. For military purposes, it’s a bit different. Clark previously explained that with DSS for defense, it's more about tying in geography-based spectrum coexistence to share spectrum between military and government operations for mission-driven purposes, although it can involve and be applicable to commercial applications as well.  

Clark stressed the need to continue global leadership in spectrum sharing, both for industry and the military, since the resource is limited.

“We have to optimize it, we have to be more efficient in its use in time-based spectrum sharing and geographic-based spectrum sharing,” he said. “We have to leverage the newer technologies that 5G is affording in order to create these new architecture and methodologies.”

The cutting-edge experiments for the military installations, he said, will set the reference architecture for those future methodologies. Part of that, according to Clark, will mean having the spectrum agility to marry the application in use with the requirements of that particular data transmission with the spectrum available.