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DOD Begins Fielding 5G Communications to California First Responders

Oct. 21, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

First responders often face communications challenges that hinder collaboration and real-time situational updates, especially in remote areas while responding to natural disasters such as fires, storms, earthquakes and flooding.

To alleviate this problem, the Defense Innovation Unit today announced a year-long prototyping project involving a private wireless 5G communications network for first responders in California, including the California National Guard.

Firefighters carry a hose spouting water as they make their way up a grassy hill.
Firefighter Climb
Firefighter Mark Williams, Station 4, Camp Pendleton Fire Department, douses a simulated fire while conducting wildland fire refresher training 130 at a mutual threat zone, April 16, 2018, at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kerstin Roberts
VIRIN: 180416-M-XF840-044

The service will provide reliable, ad hoc data and voice services to emergency responders operating anywhere in the state, said Jeff Kleck, director of the Cyber and Telecommunications Portfolio at DIU.

The project has the potential to have emergency responders show up to any site with personal or government issued mobile devices and use networked applications such as push-to-talk voice, geolocation and live maps of their surroundings — all while outside the range of existing cellular networks, Kleck said. 

The first to arrive can simply bring the private network with them using a vehicle-mounted, backpack, hand carried or wearable node, he added.

Radios are becoming obsolete and getting everyone a satellite phone is just impractical because of the expense involved, he said.

Soldier walks in mud toward a Humvee.
Mud Walk
Army Sgt. Jose Paiz of the 1114th Composite Truck Company, California National Guard, walks back to a Humvee, Jan. 12, 2018, after checking the depth of mud further down the street during a rescue mission in Montecito, Calif. The 1114th is credited with rescuing or evacuating more than 1,800 people in the Montecito area following a deadly mudslide that struck the city in the predawn hours Jan. 9, 2018.
Photo By: Air National Guard Senior Airman Crystal Housman
VIRIN: 180112-Z-FD650-3001

A full 5G mobile network isn’t possible today because some of the industry standards involving dynamic cellular frequency allocation for 5G services are still being written, and some required components such as ultra-low power 5G, aren’t yet available, Kleck explained. 

This prototype has the potential to allow for immediate fielding of the capability while avoiding delays from spectrum policy debates, he said.

The private 5G solution could provide a path toward a full 5G implementation, which will provide the necessary bandwidth for tomorrow’s emergency responder applications, he said.

At the conclusion of the successful year-long prototyping period, this solution could be scaled to other DOD organizations through other transaction agreements, he added.

DIU is partnering with the California Military Department to procure commercially available, Citizen Broadband Radio Service based private-5G equipment for mobile deployments.

"We are excited to partner with the Defense Innovation Unit," said Army Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, the adjutant general of California. "We believe this effort is the beginning of a transformation that will take civil and military emergency response teams from having multiple redundant radios in the field to having unlimited connectivity and enable each individual to use cutting edge tools to communicate and understand their environment."

Emergency vehicles line up.
EMS Line Up
Federal Emergency Management Agency assets arrive Oct. 12, 2017, at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. At the request of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Travis was designated as an installation support base during response to the Atlas Fire, which has spread across Northern California since Oct. 8, 2017. A total of 120 ambulances, 25 support vehicles and 25 tractor trailers are staged at Travis.
Photo By: Louis Briscese, Air Force
VIRIN: 171012-F-LI975-0097

"California is no stranger to natural disasters in areas with spotty or no commercial cell coverage. Fielding a hybrid 4G/5G solution to support thousands of users, that can also be easily upgraded to full 5G speeds within the next few years, is critical to our mission as protectors of our residents rather than waiting for programs of record to become available," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Steven J. Butow, commander, California Air National Guard. "We should be leveraging the same agile, iterative approaches that companies use to deal with natural disasters."

"DIU facilitated teaming arrangements among multiple companies to provide transparent roam-in to private 5G service that does not require replacing the commercial SIM card on bring-your-own-devices. This is critical since most apps used for communication identify the user by their phone number, and if that number changes the user loses their identity," said Army Maj. Gen. Jay M. Coggan, commander, California State Guard. 

An airplane drops fire retardant on a fire.
Chemical Drop
A C-130J Hercules airplane, assigned to the 146th Airlift Wing based at Channel Islands Air National Guard Base in Port Hueneme, Calif., which is carrying the Modular Airborne FireFighting System, drops fire retardant chemicals onto a ridge line above Santa Barbara, Calif., Dec. 13, 2017, as part of the effort to contain the Thomas wildfire.
Photo By: J.M. Eddins Jr., Air Force
VIRIN: 171213-F-LW859-1745

DIU has awarded contracts to two companies.

Nokia Innovations, a business unit of Nokia America, will provide the Defense Department with portable cellular radios in a variety of sizes and power outputs, in order to quickly blanket an area with cellular coverage. It will also provide device provisioning, edge computing and dynamic frequency allocation solutions, Kleck said.

Somewear Labs wearable devices extend a mobile cellular network at the edge over or around terrain, allowing teams to move faster than the mobile cellular network deployment while remaining connected to it, and providing the necessary resilience to ensure critical communications continue in the event of equipment failure or dead spots by reverting to satellite network connections, Kleck said.