Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the original notice of inquiry was issued in January 2021.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is launching a new Open Stack 5G Challenge next month to incentivize industry to develop open-architecture technologies that could be integrated into future testbeds.

The U.S. Department of Defense is partnering with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on the initiative, which builds on a notice of inquiry issued last January asking for concepts to accelerate development of an “open 5G stack ecosystem.”

DoD’s acting principal director for 5G, Amanda Toman, said last week at a Potomac Officers Club event the challenge is an effort to get a better sense of the open interfaces and network capabilities industry is developing.

“Hopefully, we do identify some unique capabilities and then we can work with those vendors in the future by potentially awarding contracts to them and then integrating them into the testbeds or some of the experimentation efforts as we move forward,” Toman said.

The challenge is one of several “special projects” Toman’s office is pursuing to advance 5G technology. Her team is also working closely with the U.S. Army on a program to transition 5G applications for tactical use on the battlefield and has another effort with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency focused on identifying open prototypes that could integrate into other DoD testbeds.

The department has made 5G a key modernization priority, requesting $1.5 billion for 5G and microelectronics projects in its fiscal 2021 budget request. In 2020, DoD announced it would invest $600 million in 5G testbeds at five military installations across the United States:

  • Naval Air Force Base Coronado, California
  • Hill Air Force Base, Utah
  • Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada
  • Fort Hood, Texas
  • Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Georgia.

The testing efforts focus on how the military can take advantage of different applications or concepts, including dynamic spectrum utilization, 5G-enabled command and control, smart warehouses and logistics and augmented and virtual reality.

The first five sites constitute “Tranche 1″ of the department’s 5G initiative. In 2021, DoD awarded contracts at seven Tranche 2 sites:

  • National Training Center and Camp Pendleton in California
  • Fort Hood, Texas, Marine Corps Base Hawaii
  • Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii
  • Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington
  • Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma
  • Joint Base San Antonio, Texas
  • Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia.

Toman noted that while the Tranche 1 sites are “up and running” with testbeds and standalone networks, the Tranche 2 projects are not as mature. The initiatives at these bases include wireless connectivity, using 5G to enhance aircraft mission readiness and 5G-enabled immersive training.

“I think over the next 12 months, we will have much more data out of Tranche 1,” Toman said. “And with Tranche 2, we’ll get to a point where we have testbeds stood up and [are] starting to work towards development of those applications.”

Across both tranches, each project includes a testbed, the applications being demonstrated and network enhancements or tools that could be used to optimize the 5G network, Toman said.

As the department works to better understand how 5G can enhance operations, Toman said one of its top priorities over the next few years will be on spectrum sharing or “understanding how things can coexist in that spectrum-constrained environment.”

That issue is top of mind for commercial airlines and the telecommunications industry as concerns mount over whether new 5G networks could cause interference with aircraft radar altimeters. The Pentagon has created a Joint Interagency FiveG Radar Altimeter Interference working group to gauge potential safety issues.

Another priority for the department centers on open radio access networks (ORANs), which define interface standards and encourage system modularity.

“We’ve really made a concerned effort to award to vendors that provide ORAN solutions for Tranche 2,” Toman said.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.

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