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Smart Network Keeps Troops In Touch

February 2006
By Henry S. Kenyon

 
The QuicLINK system is a lightweight cellular communications package designed for ease of use. Its equipment consists of a server housed in a rugged laptop and a radio node. The node can be mounted in a vehicle or carried by two people.
Adaptable nodes self-configure and carry data to the foxhole.

A deployable cell-phone-based system will allow coalition warfighters to communicate on the move without relying on vulnerable links to satellite groundstations. Designed for portability, the equipment can form self-healing tactical networks that connect automatically to other nodes and to satellite or landline systems. It relies on third-generation cellular waveforms that transmit live streaming video, provide reduced latency and increase bandwidth and security.

Maintaining connectivity during a war or natural disaster is a challenge to soldiers and first responders. Mobile networking technologies are beginning to appear in commercial and government sector applications that can establish networks quickly with little or no manpower or infrastructure support. Based on advanced wireless protocols, these systems offer remote users increased communications and information-sharing capabilities.

One example of these cellular-based systems is the QuicLINK mobile networking platform. According to Frank McGhee, vice president of government and space accounts for Ericsson Incorporated, Plano, Texas, the company’s Swedish technology was selected as part of the U.S. government’s Foreign Comparative Testing Program for use in several key communications efforts. Chosen to support the U.S. Army’s Warfighter Information Network-Tactical program and the U.S. Special Operations Command, the system was refined in a series of development cycles at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in 2003.

As an all-Internet-protocol-based platform, it provides the military with high data rates for tactical users in a highly portable package. The QuicLINK server is a 13-pound ruggedized laptop coupled with a 115-pound radio node that can be carried by two soldiers. McGhee notes that the equipment was envisioned originally as a series of portable antennas that would provide backhaul communications to battlefield networks. But the Army decided that its units could not be dependent on backhaul links to satellite communications networks. He explains that QuicLINK’s current configuration is based on the need to provide combat forces with independent and autonomous cellular networks.

The system provides a software-programmable, peer-to-peer architecture that allows separate QuicLINK nodes to connect to each other automatically. Soldiers using the technology are registered immediately when they log into the network, and it supports Type-1 encrypted cell phones and wireless devices.

QuicLINK is not designed as a high-capacity network. Each node can support 60 to 80 users and can cover a radius of six to eight miles depending on the terrain. McGhee notes that during trials with the U.S. military, the system’s code division multiple access (CDMA) frequency transmitted voice and data packets effectively through foliage, urban areas and radio interference. He adds that video feeds are a major driver for increasing data rates and that QuicLINK can transmit streaming video in a high-use environment at speeds of 144 kilobits per second.

Cingular is introducing a commercial version of the system capable of transmitting up to 14.4 megabits per second. This technology uses wideband CDMA (WCDMA) protocol. For downlinks, it relies on high-speed data packets providing 14-megabit-per-second speeds, and for uplinks, the technology can move data at 2.3 megabits per second. McGhee notes that by mid-2006, QuicLINK will migrate to WCDMA. This third-generation cellular system will provide individual nodes with greater flexibility to support cryptographic systems, to transmit streaming video and to provide access to the nonsecure and secret Internet protocol router networks. The additional bandwidth capability also reduces latency to less than 50 milliseconds, which is effective for real-time applications, he says.

Besides the U.S. and international militaries, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also is interested in QuicLINK’s emergency response capabilities. McGhee notes that the DHS is moving along with its WCDMA road map and is leveraging billions of dollars into interoperable communications and data systems. The military is taking advantage of this process because it will provide the necessary production volumes to drive down the costs of wireless systems, he says.

The technology was deployed to support disaster relief efforts on the U.S. Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. QuicLINK cellular systems were set up at the LouisArmstrongInternationalAirport in New Orleans and at the New Orleans Naval Support Activity.

QuicLINK grew out of commercial technologies Ericsson developed, explains Ingvar Oderland, general manager for business development, security solutions division, Goteborg, Sweden. The system’s architecture has been studied for a number of years in Sweden for defense applications, but the company’s U.S. subsidiary has been driving the technology’s requirements. He adds that the product’s release in October 2005 has generated interest in Europe and Asia for this type of mobile communications system.

Ericsson has been in discussions with the Swedish government for the possible acquisition of QuicLINK systems, notes Mats Andersson, manager, customer solutions, secure communication infrastructure, Goteborg. But the firm has not yet pressed discussions with NATO nations, choosing to concentrate on potential Asian customers such as India. “We have quite a large customer base in those [Asian] countries, so it is easier for us to go with those customers,” he offers.

Although there are concerns about the potential vulnerability of commercial-based technologies, Oderland observes that many nations use a mix of commercial and military communications systems. “Our belief, and our discussion with our customers, is that you will not have one or the other, but a combination,” he says.

Andersson explains that while customers may use commercial applications, those applications are wrapped in military security systems. Cryptographic applications are currently available for this type of network protection, he adds.

 
QuicLINK can form self-healing cellular networks that provide streaming video and data communications in high-use environments.
But security applications are usually tailored to a specific nation’s military, based on their needs, budget and capabilities, Oderland cautions. “Of course there is a certain amount of encryption already built into the commercial standards, but depending on the application, you sometimes want an external military encryption on top of it,” he says.

Oderland explains that Ericsson sees QuicLINK as an  information-sharing system. The firm suggests that its international customers attach some type of situational awareness services to their QuicLINK systems. One example of these applications would be tools to share location-based data.

However, several constraints are delaying the deployment of QuicLINK systems in Europe. A primary factor is the current state of many national defense budgets, which are limited and locked into large multinational programs. Oderland believes that determining when to approach a market and make a product available is a question of timing.

Ericsson also has been in preliminary discussions with several of the Eastern European nations that have recently joined NATO. But Oderland explains that these tentative discussions have not yet resulted in business leads.

Besides military applications for QuicLINK, civilian and commercial uses are being discussed with potential customers. Ericsson manufactures a product that routes 911 telephone calls to a user’s landline telephone or cell phone. The firm has been in discussions with some customers about combining this type of equipment with a QuicLINK-based command and control system for first responders. “There is definitely an interest to bring this type of system out to the disaster relief arena,” Oderland says.

 

Web Resources
Warfighter Information Network-Tactical: www.win-t.com
U.S. Special Operations Command: www.socom.mil
Ericsson: www.ericsson.com