Opinion

Prioritize building the flight line of the future

Mission readiness depends on secure and reliable connectivity to successfully maintain electronic workflows. Without it, the U.S. Department of Defense cannot effectively connect its bases to provide effective and efficient communications. Without it, personnel cannot seamlessly communicate with each other, order parts, access technical documents and manuals, upload and analyze aircraft data, or access secure information in maintenance hangars, munition bunkers and airfields. The DoD needs to prioritize and establish a path to enabling the flight line of the future; that is, ensuring and providing connectivity — everywhere.

Complex communication challenges exist for the DoD around remote or large areas. Even though commercial-grade wireless access points are located across U.S. military bases, they don’t perform very well in hangars, maintenance depots, flight lines or any structurally complex facility where line-of-sight communications do not exist. The coverage area is either too large or remote, and metal hangars, concrete bunkers and moving aircraft block signals. Unreliable Wi-Fi in these areas prevents the military from realizing the full mission value from electronic workflow.

Military airfields and airports located in very large areas typically have minimal connectivity. When the military was building runways 25 years ago, they could not have foreseen the need to extend enterprisewide IT services like Wi-Fi to remote areas, or run fiber underneath runways.

Hangar environments are particularly challenging when radio waves bounce and reflect off walls, aircraft, machinery or other material. Add to that the concern about communications in and around munitions bunkers where radio frequencies and devices with trigger mechanisms don’t always integrate well. Traditional enterprise IT has not been able to serve these types of facilities very well in the past.

This commentary argues that U.S. cellular networks could experience disruptions if Ligado is allowed to deploy its network. (peterhowell/Getty Images)
Ligado Networks’ proposal is not 5G

This commentary argues that U.S. cellular networks could experience disruptions if Ligado is allowed to deploy its network.

It all starts with the right infrastructure. One of the most important aspects of modernizing fixed and mobile networks on a base is to ensure that the physical infrastructure can support higher speeds and data rates. Even the most advanced wireless solution will not work reliably if not designed and architected for each base’s unique environment.

To properly extend a traditional network into remote, mobile areas, the DoD should start with a wireless site survey or radio frequency site study to help plan and design a wireless network that can deliver the required radio frequency coverage and throughput needed for the identified space.

Whether redesigning or deploying a new network, it is important to have an in-depth analysis of the physical facility. The site survey, which typically takes three to seven days, provides accurate data that can be used to build wireless coverage models reflecting the layout, construction and finish of the facility, including actual conditions, not predictions.

After properly measuring the radio frequency within the facility to determine how the frequency functions within the space, a precise and functional design, materials bill and budget should be delivered. This effort will result in a wireless network that is the most efficient, and cost-effective for the specific environment.

For large military bases that need to extend coverage beyond current Wi-Fi limits, there are two techniques that can be used:

Dynamic meshing: Fixed access points are supplemented with mobile access points deployed on trucks, golf carts, pushcarts or hand-carried cases. As operators move across base, access points seamlessly hand off the signal to neighboring access points without dropping the connection.

CBRS and private LTE: Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or CBRS, can augment Wi-Fi by using previously restricted, lower-frequency bands for private LTE, which is an ideal solution for base environments that have access issues. That means the DoD can install its own private, closed networks to support wide-area surveillance and indoor cellular coverage, and keep enterprise communication channels safe. Private LTE also keeps all military data private — including sensitive information such as aircraft fuel levels, repair status and cargo — behind a firewall. And it allows the DoD to retain complete control over which devices, applications and users have access to the network.

In addition, fewer CBRS access points than Wi-Fi access points are needed to cover the same area, which lowers capital expenses. Costs can be lowered further by adding compact CBRS modules to Wi-Fi access points rather than deploying separate CBRS access points. And in the future, as bases add smart devices, CBRS enables DoD operators to securely maintain and monitor their arsenal of devices on the Internet of Things.

The flight line of the future encompasses the entire communications ecosystem on a military base, including applications, databases, logistics, facilities and more. To meet future mission requirements, the DoD can upgrade and streamline communications with advanced technology that meets every military base’s unique requirements so all airmen have access to the information they need, when they need it. Successful use cases can be used to replicate communication ecosystems globally across all military bases to realize the full mission value of electronic workflow. This will enable the DoD to save time and money, while becoming much more efficient in accomplishing its mission.

John McDonald in the DoD federal sales director at CommScope. Jeff Panebianco is the director of sales at ID Technologies.

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