DoD wants 5G capability, but how’s it going to get it?

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They’re not quite sure how, but Defense Department planners are pretty sure they want 5G as part of the future of their communications. Who doesn’t? To help figure it out, last year the Pentagon began funding a research group called the National Spectrum Consortium. To learn what it’s been up to, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke...


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

They’re not quite sure how, but Defense Department planners are pretty sure they want 5G as part of the future of their communications. Who doesn’t? To help figure it out, last year the Pentagon began funding a research group called the National Spectrum Consortium. To learn what it’s been up to, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the consortium’s chairman, Sal D’Itri.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Sal, good to have you in.

Sal D’Itri: Tom, thanks for having me on the show.

Tom Temin: Let’s begin with some of the background here. The Pentagon is dealing with 5G. It’s dealing with spectrum allocation and with communications. How does 5G and the spectrum play together? Explain that for us.

Sal D’Itri: Well, 5G is a technology that enables [internet of things]. It enables greater bandwidth than we’ve ever had before, and that means we’re going to need access to more spectrum. So if you look globally, 5G operates in mid-band spectrum. Today in the United States, particularly with the Department of Defense that’s encumbered by military assets, particularly military radars. So it’s critical that we find a way to give commercial industry access to that spectrum while protecting the incumbent, the military user and allowing them to operate. That’s a unique situation here in the United States, and it’s brought about an invention called Spectrum Sharing, which the [Federal Communications Commission] and  [National Telecommunications and Information Administration], in collaboration with DoD CIO brought to the commercial market last year.

Tom Temin: Because you hear constant advertising and I get 50 press releases a week about something having to do with 5G from one of the carriers or one of the equipment makers, so they must have somewhere they’re operating.

Sal D’Itri: So 5G is rolling out across the United States, and that’s something that needs to be clarified. 5G, its huge benefit is that 5G takes the traditional carrier network that usually sits in big iron and moves that up into the cloud. And that is a game-changing shift for carriers as well as private enterprise, DoD being among the largest of private enterprises, who want to start using 5G technology for their own uses. So again, it’s spectrum being critical to that, finding ways for DoD to start using their own spectrum better, and sharing spectrum is going to enable DoD to now start using 5G technology.

Tom Temin: And then there’s the question of what it is they want to do with their 5G technology, and it sounds like in creating the consortium, that’s what they want to find out.

Sal D’Itri: What’s happened, transpired over the past year is that back in April of last year, the Department of Defense reached out to the National Spectrum Consortium to start a collaboration around the possibilities of DoD use of 5G in conjunction with industry. So we had a kickoff event that was about 450 people that attended, and since then, we’ve had a series of collaborations with various federal agencies around 5G. That’s led to a series of technical concepts and now RFPs that are out in drafts to the consortium members around a couple key areas related to 5G . And those touch on areas of, as I said, opening up more mid-band spectrum on a shared basis on things like Smart Warehouse, Smart Base and IoT.  And then in the area of augmented in virtual reality for 5G, which will enable the warfighter to train in an augmented environment at the mobile tempo that they need.

Tom Temin: So this is not necessarily field communications they’re talking about. But when you mention Smart Warehouse that sounds like an applied version of IoT.

Sal D’Itri: That’s right. And so there’s a lot of dual commercial use between what we’re trying to do, which is why it’s good to come to something like a consortium that has a large number of non-traditional players commercial industry, Silicon Valley startups who typically might not have an opportunity to engage quickly in this process to bring 5G to market for the Department of Defense. So in that sense, yeah, it’s really looking at how can we improve the Smart Based, Smart Warehouse environment, using 5G?

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Sal D’Itri. He is the chairman of the National Spectrum Consortium. And because there are so many companies and organizations in the consortium, do you kind of keep each other honest? Because what, you have a job that’s with a spectrum company, but you’re also chairman of the consortium. So does that consortium makeup kind of keep everybody focused on DoD’s mission as opposed to competition?

Sal D’Itri: Well companies who enter the consortium sign what are called the articles of collaboration, which deal with things like intellectual property in the way we engage with each other. It actually produces a robust collaboration with the DoD that I haven’t found in any other type of contract vehicle. And I think that is really the key is the the chance to collaborate with each other to put forward just technical concepts that are not proprietary to any company and really try and push innovation forward. And it’s that collaborative cycle that I think is often missed in the [other transaction authority] format where companies can engage with their federal counterparts up until the time the RFP is due, and that really allows for a better process in a better product in the end.

Tom Temin: Now, pursuant to some of these ideas such as the Smart Warehouse, what has the consortium done? Has there been any progress or deliverables to DoD so far?

Sal D’Itri: So the RFPs are just out now gotta were in the early stages of this. There have been some site visits to some of the warehouse locations. There’s been — some proof of concept papers that have been circulated, but we’re just going to see the RFPs probably in the next 30 days, with work to start later this summer.

Tom Temin: The RFPs are for research and demonstrations, or are they for putting in networks that somehow tie all of the RFD tags together?

Sal D’Itri: Well, it’s a little bit of both right, and so, since DoD this is the first time they’re really getting their hands on 5G this is really what I would call proof of concept. So it’s more than just research and development. We are going to deploy 5G networks, mobile edge computing, other features and capabilities of IoT locations and then go on to trial IT, pilot IT and see what exactly are the outcomes of that over the next, Let’s say, 24 months.

Tom Temin: Yeah, talk more about  mobile edge computing because this comes up a lot in DoD discussions when, even though they’re moving, lots of resources to clouds and JEDI and this, that and the other, they still have situations tactically, where they feel that they won’t have access to the cloud or high bandwith access to clouds, so they want almost cloudlettes, they call them edged-type of computing. How does 5G potentially play into that?

Sal D’Itri: Well as 5G itself moves what’s called the radio access network, the RAN, up into the cloud you now how tremendous flexibility in terms of the type of services that you can offer via 5G. So  think about things like artificial intelligence, vehicle to vehicle communication, connecting thousands of sensors up over 5G. It’s great to be able to do that, but down at the local premise, you’re gonna need mobile edge computing. You’re going to need compute storage in a slice of that, to be able to capture all that data, process it and then leverage that connectivity and flexibility of 5G back up through the network. So mobile edge computing and 5G in my mind often go hand in hand.

Tom Temin: That is to say, not everything, every piece of communication has to go up to the cloud and back down. But a lot of it can take place locally. Peer to peer.

Sal D’Itri: That’s right, and that’s critical for, as we think about DoD as a private enterprise, an opportunity to use shared spectrum to build a network opportunity, operate private 5G networks, you wanna have some of that local edge computing for security purposes for processing purposes. So mobile edge computing fits right into the mix.

Tom Temin: And with respect to spectrum sharing, I guess, is the issue interference like it was years ago? Or is that pretty much so digital that interference is no longer an issue?

Sal D’Itri: Well, if you look at the first shared band, which again is a great collaboration between DoD CIO, NTIA and the FCC as well as the commercial industry, what you have is a band that the evolution of something called the Spectrum Access System, which again is a large cloud implementation — the first large cloud implementations of spectrum management systems — protecting the incumbent while opening up access to private enterprise and commercial carriers on an as-needed basis.

Tom Temin: And here’s a naive question: Once DoD says they award a contract for 5G services in a warehouse or for a field application, peer to peer, this kind of thing, do they buy the 5G capacity from a carrier, or is this something that someone can have technically, but not commercially from a Verizon or an AT&T?

Sal D’Itri: Well, it’s really flexible, I would say, in that model again, there are carrier networks that are present. A lot of these bases and are being built out, so there is an opportunity to leverage the capabilities that carriers provide. There’s also an opportunity, through the shared spectrum, to build private networks or semi private networks and even perhaps networks that use unlicenced spectrum like WiFi or even some of the millimeter wave spectrum that’s now become available to carriers to implement really, really high capacity but short range, indoor type applications.

Tom Temin: So 5G in some senses a standard and not necessarily just a commercial product?

Sal D’Itri: 5G is a, first of all is a protocol defined by the [International Telecommunication Union] then it was taken up by 3GPP, which has created a standard around 5G. You can think of 5G as a marketing term in some way. So there is a 3GPP implementation of 5G, and that’s what’s being rolled out around the globe. So if you go back to 4G, for example, there was LTE and there was WiMax. So there were actually two standards that were developed at that time. Today there’s only one standard that’s been developed, and that’s been around the global 3GPP initiative.

Tom Temin: And so the consortium, to get back to that has a five-year life span under the contract that created it. What do you see happening in years three, four, five?

Sal D’Itri: Well, I think we’re just cracking the surface at these first four applications. And certainly there’s gonna be more opportunity to, as 5G evolves, have greater implementation of IoT to advance spectrum usage and get into areas of let’s say contested spectrum. And perhaps start looking at the OCONUS application of 5G for the warfighter.

Tom Temin: And can this operate at sea over vast distances away from land? Because I’m sure the Navy must have some interest in this.

Sal D’Itri: Well, there are certainly things that need to be looked at there. There are 5G standards in process for satellite back haul, for example, which I think would be critical there. But to your point, how does it fit into the mission and is it the perfect fit for everything? And that’s, I think, as we look a few years out, some of the areas that we’re gonna be exploring.

Tom Temin: Sal D’Itri is chairman of the National Spectrum Consortium. Thanks so much for joining me.

Sal D’Itri: Thanks, Tom.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at Hear the Federal Drive on demand and on your device. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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