• The National Spectrum Consortium, a Defense Department research and development organization, is central to the Pentagon’s efforts to gain dominance in the 5G arena.
     The National Spectrum Consortium, a Defense Department research and development organization, is central to the Pentagon’s efforts to gain dominance in the 5G arena.

It's All About Spectrum in Race for 5G Dominance

February 1, 2020
By George I. Seffers
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A consortium plays a pivotal role in the competition with China.


The United States and China are locked in a competition to take command of fifth-generation spectrum technologies known as 5G. Because those technologies will enable autonomous vehicles, smart cities and battlefield operations, the leading nation will reap commercial, economic and military benefits. To spur U.S. innovation, the Defense Department is largely relying on the National Spectrum Consortium, a research and development organization designed to develop revolutionary spectrum-related technologies through collaboration among industry, academia and government agencies.

China is largely seen as dominating the 5G arena. A Defense Science Board study published last year, for example, points out that the communist country has aggressively invested in an array of spectrum-allocation initiatives, including $180 billion in capital expenditure for 5G development over five years. “[T]hese approaches have given competitive advantage to China in 5G technology and capability. China’s 5G strategy should be viewed in the context of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) grand strategy,” the report states.

But the United States is racing to catch up. A flurry of activity in recent months has drawn attention to the consortium, commonly referred to as the NSC. For example, the Defense Department issued a special notice in late November known as a draft request for prototype proposals (RPPs) calling for industry input on the development of 5G technologies. Ultimately, military officials intend to conduct 5G experiments at the Marine Corps Logistics Base, Albany, Georgia, and at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

To compete, companies must be members of the NSC, which is funded by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. The consortium is working on about 30 projects, boasts 260 members, and tackles a wide range of technical areas, including the Internet of Things and autonomous vehicles. “Our members represent the traditional [Defense Department] base of companies that you’re familiar with, as well as commercial industry, Silicon Valley startups, commercial carriers, commercial original equipment manufacturers, global providers, small innovators and venture-backed companies,” says Sal D’Itri, NSC chairman.

According to the draft RPPs, smart warehouse technologies should improve the efficiency, accuracy, security and safety of materiel and supply handling, management, storage and distribution. “The intended outcome of the project is a 5G-enabled military Smart Warehouse that can not only enhance efficiency and safety well beyond the limits of current processes but also serve as a proving ground for testing, refining and validating emerging 5G-enabled technologies for large-scale military logistics operations,” it says.

And at Hill Air Force Base, the dynamic spectrum sharing project is intended to develop effective methodologies, including hardware, software and systems, for sharing or coexistence between airborne radar systems and 5G cellular systems. The specific focus is on the 3,100-3,450 MHz band. “The objective of this effort is to construct and operate a localized full-scale 5G mobile cellular network in order to evaluate the impact of the 5G network on airborne radar systems and the radar systems’ impact on the 5G network, employing both active and passive techniques to enable sharing or coexistence,” the announcement states.

The November RPPs were followed by two more draft RPPs focused on testing to take place at Joint Base Lewis–McChord, Washington, and Naval Base San Diego, California. Information collected for the draft proposals will help shape the final RPPs.

D’Itri emphasizes the importance of smart base and depot automation capabilities. “Two of 5G’s big benefits are that it’s really geared toward machine-to-machine, large density of devices—Internet of Things. It’s one of the underlying capabilities. Its resiliency above 4G is another one of its capabilities,” D’Itri points out. “When these things are combined, you can start having true autonomy across an entire depot or an entire area—a campus, for example. This is where you get into autonomous vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicle management, vehicle-to-vehicle communication. These are the kinds of things that the commercial industry is already exploring with 4G and soon with 5G and could be brought forward for depot automation.”

The military services are exploring the possibility of applying smart city technologies to military bases. For example, the Air Force is partnering with AT&T to build a smart base at Maxwell–Gunter Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama, that could serve as a model for others. NATO also is studying the possibility of applying smart city technologies to military installations. “We’re able to bring commercial companies that have 5G experience, smart city experience, edge computing experience, to the Department of Defense and see how we can collaborate together on their needs for smart bases and smart ports,” D’Itri offers.

The consortium chair also stresses the need for millimeter wave and so-called sub-6 capabilities, both of which are highlighted in the Defense Innovation Board report. Countries are pursuing two separate approaches to deploy hundreds of megahertz of new spectrum for 5G. The first focuses on the part of the electromagnetic spectrum below 6 gigahertz, primarily in the 3 and 4 gigahertz bands, the report explains.

The second approach focuses on the part of the spectrum between 24 and 300 gigahertz and is the approach taken by the United States, South Korea and Japan, although all three countries are also exploring sub-6 to various degrees. U.S. carriers are primarily focused on millimeter wave deployment for 5G because most of the sub-6 spectrum being used by the rest of the world are exclusive federal bands in the United States, extensively used by the Department of Defense in particular.

“Certainly sub-6 gigahertz, the mid-band spectrum, is top of mind for everyone. There are opportunities to open up more of this sub-6 gigahertz spectrum for 5G. And then the millimeter wave spectrum has really incredible speeds there for data, but the signal doesn’t propagate very far,” D’Itri offers.

Many of the capabilities being pursued can be used for both military and commercial purposes. Dual-use systems stimulate “the best of what commercial industry could bring,” but they also serve the needs of the department, D’Itri says.

He cites virtual reality systems as one example. “A couple of areas that have been talked about where there is great dual-use application is virtual reality—augmented virtual reality, like live training and education. It’s the bandwidth and the capabilities of 5G, things like edge computing, that will help drive that augmented virtual reality experience.”

The consortium already is experiencing some successes, according to case studies posted to the organization’s website. For example, ANDRO Computational Solutions leads a team working with the Air Force Research Laboratory to create policy-based solutions that allow dynamic spectrum systems to operate in a shared or contested spectrum in frequency bands known as advanced wireless services-3, or AWS-3.

“That spectrum, which had many different types of military applications, was auctioned off to U.S. carriers, and there was funding set aside to help, through research, development and prototyping, to create new spectrum sharing and spectrum-efficient technologies that would aid in the transition of systems out of that band but also serve a greater good of enabling spectrum access and spectrum utilization capabilities for the warfighter,” D’Itri recalls.

The ANDRO team generated a policy and regulatory framework for dynamic spectrum access that guides updates of processes and regulations for frequency assignment, certification, data standards and spectrum operations. They have created an end-to-end spectrum management toolchain that provides generation, validation and the radio deployment of the machine-readable policies.

Additionally, Collins Aerospace and Shared Spectrum Company demonstrated a dynamic spectrum access radio designed to fill a critical need for the Naval Research Laboratory. The system, known as small form factor tactical targeting network technology, operates with a secure, robust and low-latency Internet Protocol-based waveform, providing a fast ad-hoc mesh network at the tactical edge. It permits the sharing of secure data across the battlespace and will be used for training at Navy military ranges and fleet concentrations in close proximity to large urban centers.

Another consortium project led by Perspecta Labs and Pacific Star Communications addresses a critical need in the AWS-3 band for both the Air Force and Navy. The two services require a solution for spectrum monitoring, recording and visualization solutions for the 1780-1850 megahertz band. Rather than relocate out of the band completely, the government sought novel approaches to develop a robust yet low-cost Next Generation Spectrum Situational Awareness System that could verify compliance with mandated spectrum sharing and compression rules, provide spectrum usage data to decision makers and offer historical trends of spectrum usage for future planning.

When fully implemented, the system could provide solutions to environmental hardening, tamper monitoring and data processing to reduce transmission requirements. Low-cost sensors can be placed in remote areas and use network technology to get data back to a central location and will offer the Defense Department increased capability at a significantly reduced cost, according to an announcement on the consortium website.

“Really what we’ve been able to do is demonstrate this thing that was a concept years ago of dynamic spectrum access, and developing the rules for the technologies, fielding and prototyping these technologies, as well as looking at better spectrum utilization on bases or at test ranges, for example, developing tools and software that have improved the use of spectrum as well as the ability to be able to share spectrum between federal users and commercial entities,” D’Itri says.

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