The US Military Is About to Launch Its Largest 5G Experiments Yet
The “at-scale” tests could change defense networks, training, and logistics — and how Americans use the Internet.
After months of expectation, planning, and consulting with the services and with industry, the Pentagon is finally ready to start testing new concepts for 5G communications at five bases across the country. The contracts to the various companies taking part in the tests, which defense officials announced on Thursday, are worth a total of $600 million. By Pentagon standards, that sum isn’t enormous. But the experiments offer companies a chance to refine 5G offerings that will be key to their businesses in the future, and will reveal how industry and the military will manage and share spectrum. That has huge implications for the future of the telecommunications industry and the way consumers use the Internet.
“These are really at-scale experiments. They aren’t just little demonstrations in a small area, like a science experiment,” Joseph Evans, the director for 5G in the Office of the Director of Research and Engineering, told reporters on Thursday. “These are at-scale deployments of 5G technology and an evaluation of DOD and industry dual-use” applications.
The test sites include:
- Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, focusing on augmented and virtual reality training.
- Naval Base San Diego in California, focusing on smart warehousing.
- Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Georgia, focusing 5G smart warehousing but for vehicles.
- Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, focusing on distributed command and control.
- Hill Air Force Base in Utah, focusing on dynamic spectrum sharing.
The list adds Nellis to the group the Defense Department announced back in February, when it began asking for industry participants and seeing a “very enthusiastic” response, Evans said.
The command-and-control experiments to take place at Nellis will tie the 5G effort more directly to the Pentagon’s push to link all the services, and all of their weapons, together in the a massive battle network dubbed Joint All-Domain Command and Control. The Defense Department is “trying to make our forces more survivable by taking command and control functions that have long been housed in single buildings and spreading them out [making] them mobile. We’re really trying to change the way our forces are deployed in the field,” said Evans.
But the biggest challenge, and the test series with the most relevance to the broader world beyond the Defense Department, will be in dynamic spectrum sharing.
The Department reserves key areas of the mid-band spectrum for radar and other uses. Part of the reason China has more 5G users than the United States is that the Chinese government has allowed select industry players to use certain parts of the spectrum inside the country. This helped Huawei, for example, evolve into a key player in the 5G equipment market. The United States is playing catch-up. The experiments to take place at Hill Air Force Base, involving high-powered radars, will help the Defense Department figure out how to open up portions of that highly lucrative mid-band spectrum to industry. Evans said that the spectrum access management framework that’s part of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service provides a good model but that some of the participating industry players had come up with new schemes and ideas as well.
“What we’re trying to do is understand how you can make these high-powered radars co-exist with these 5G cellular systems. Probably the first thing we have to do there is understand the environment and understand the impact of those systems on eachother,” said Evans. “It's not just a single 5G cell site impacting something flying overhead; it’s all of the cell sites it can possibly see as well as all the handsets on the ground. So it’s those aggregation effects we need to understand at scale, how they impact the radar. And vice versa, we need to understand how the radar sending its radar pulses into the environment is going to impact the cellular network as well. Once we can quantify those impact we can design the mechanisms to control or share.”
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