The Defense Department on Wednesday announced the kickoff of a major initiative to start integrating commercial 5G technologies into its communications networks, an effort that’s likely to mean hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending over the next year.
The Pentagon said it would issue a draft request for proposals in November, asking industry for ideas on how to begin experimenting with the use of 5G capabilities in military settings.
DoD wants to conduct the experiments at four different bases in the continental United States, and intends to reveal which installations it’s selected for the projects in the draft solicitation documents. The department hopes to issue a final RFP by December.
On a conference call with reporters, Dr. Lisa Porter, the deputy undersecretary of Defense for research and engineering, declined to say how much the department expects to spend on the contract awards. But in budget reprogramming documents sent to Capitol Hill in May, the department said it would need $436 million in fiscal 2020 for the overall project, called Defense Next Generation Information Communications Technology.
Porter said the RFP will ask contractors to help DoD conduct real-world 5G experiments in three specific areas: Augmented and virtual reality for military training, “smart warehouses” for the military services’ logistics functions, and ways to share radio frequencies in “mid-band” portions of the electromagnetic spectrum that are used by high-powered military radios but are also attractive targets for 5G deployments.
She said the experiments were geared toward capitalizing on new 5G technologies while acknowledging that commercial companies have already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into their development.
“This is one of those areas where the commercial industry is really leading the charge, but we need to think about how we influence security standards and things like that,” Porter said. “It was really important for us to be informed by their perspective, and one common thing we’ve heard from industry is that they do have an interest in collaborative experimentation. They recognize there’s a lot we need to figure out.”
Prior to announcing the upcoming RFP, the department issued a request for information via the National Spectrum Consortium – a DoD-sponsored public-private entity that uses Other Transaction Authority to prototype wireless technologies. The department got 260 separate responses to the RFI, said Dr. Joe Evans, DoD’s technical director for 5G.
“It was a pretty enthusiastic response across the board – different types of companies from big industry to startups to big equipment providers – the entire ecosystem of 5G,” he said. “We’ve taken those ideas to help inform the draft RFP that will be out in November.”
This past Spring, Congress gave DoD the go-ahead to reprogram $52 million from its 2019 budget to begin laying the groundwork for its 5G plans. Defense officials told lawmakers at the time that the money would be used to accelerate 5G development in collaboration with industry, and to dynamically share spectrum for military and private use.
Porter said Wednesday that spectrum allocation and sharing remain some of the department’s top concerns in the 5G space, and that DoD is also working closely with the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
“As a country, we have a real challenge with spectrum, especially in mid-band, and together, we need to work that out,” she said. “Industry needs access to spectrum, DoD needs access to spectrum, we both acknowledge each other’s challenges in this domain. Essentially this is a call to action to say, ‘let’s get serious about solving this together.’”