The Cellular Battlefield: You CAN Hear Me Now

November 24, 2009
By Beverly Schaeffer

A new capability called TactiCell will enable secure cell phone use in harsh environments. Warfighters will be able to text, talk and send video knowing their communications are reliable and protected. Maryann Lawlor's article Cell Phones on the Front Lines, in this month's issue of SIGNAL Magazine, dials in on the military's efforts to develop the TactiCell capability. The Joint Special Operations Command, a component of the U.S. Special Operations Command, began pursuing the capability through the U.S. Joint Forces Command's Joint Systems Integration Center, which is providing its expertise to the project. The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command's Space and Missile Defense Battle Lab is working on the high-flying infrastructure needed for the capability to work in mountainous or "concrete canyon" settings. The TactiCell system, which features a handset--or laptop computers if that's what the users need--employs commercial products that make cell phone communications secure. TactiCell addresses several drawbacks existing systems still pose. Current tactical radio systems are large, complex and don't provide enough bandwidth in a video-dependent environment. In contrast, the TactiCell system requires only three components: a handset, equipment that acts as mobile cell towers and a platform to take the cell towers to the very top in certain environments. Even in the noncombat environment of urban cities anywhere, cell phone reliability is never certain, and JSIC's director, Col. Frederick Cross, USA, believes that same frustration also resonates on the battlefield:

No one likes cell phone or connectivity "dead zones," especially a warfighter at the tactical edge. For many of our warfighters in Afghanistan and Iraq, the infrastructure needed to provide cell phone connectivity doesn't exist and the entire field of fire is a [cellular] "dead zone." We want to fix that, so at JFCOM we're looking at ways to get greater connectivity to our warfighters at the tactical edge.

But meeting the goal of equipping warfighters with TactiCell requires a platform able take a payload of networking nuts and bolts successfully up into the stratosphere and back down to Earth again. Potential platforms include satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles and aerostats, but each platform has its own strengths and limitations. Western DataCom's president, Philip Ardire, notes that the TactiCell project is not a commercial product but a stop-gap measure until the Joint Tactical Radio System is up and running. His company puts the cell switch on the aerostat; Ardire coined the term Aerocell to describe the system. Issues must be resolved before the Aerocell system can truly take flight on the battlefield. Verizon and Sprint-or their counterparts in other countries-own the area of spectrum the military services would use. The handset's external GPS unit will also need to be turned on to support handheld device-based blue force tracking. The TactiCell system is now moving to final certification, planned for January 2010, followed by its introduction onto the battlefield. Western DataCom also has spoken with U.S. Northern Command to offer the service for first responders. Share your thoughts about this capability right here on SIGNAL Scape by leaving a response or read and comment on the full article online.





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