Moving to Mobile

November 2011
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Magazine
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A U.S. Army captain uses a training application on a mobile device. The Defense Information Systems Agency is studying the possibility of providing mobile devices and services.

The U.S. Defense Department considers centralizing control of mobile devices.

The U.S. Defense Department may become its own cellular provider. This move, which would involve centralizing control of mobile devices, would improve security and potentially save money.

Security, or the lack thereof, is a major reason mobile devices have yet to be made widely available to military members. It is difficult to determine, for example, which country builds the components in commercially available cell phones, and whether those components could be infested with vulnerabilities that could put military data or operations at risk. By providing its own cell phones, the Defense Department would seek some control, or at least verification, of where components are made and if the phones are secure enough for military applications. And by providing its own network, the department could tighten security even further.

With that in mind, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), Fort Meade, Maryland, is kicking off two parallel activities to study the possibility of becoming a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO). DISA officials are attempting to organize a pilot project, possibly in the form of a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration, to prove that the concept is viable. As part of that effort, Tracy Allison, chief of DISA’s Advanced Technology Division of Network Services Engineering, is seeking sponsorship and funding for a potential one-year effort that could include fielding mobile devices in Afghanistan. Allison says he envisions a pilot that would analyze mobile phones in three kinds of environments—office buildings, roaming environments that extend beyond the cell coverage area, and combat.

“I want to touch base with U.S. Central Command and see if we can identify an active unit that could get some benefit out of the pilot,” Allison says. “They’re using phones made in Afghanistan over there right now. If we get the pilot money, we can provide them with phones they could use on the battlefield. Warfighters could use the phones and get some benefit out of them for a year or so and evaluate them. In my mind, they would be no worse off than they are right now.”

Allison’s research is in the very early stages, and he has not yet determined the cost of a pilot or the details of exactly how it would be carried out. He has, however, mentioned the idea to officials within Central Command and has asked a team to draw up some proposals. Once he has the proposals, he formally will begin seeking partners for the project.

Another effort kicked off earlier this year when DISA released a request for information (RFI) for advice about becoming an MVNO. The RFI says the MVNO would provide third- and eventually fourth-generation network service and would offer data services only with encrypted voice over Internet protocol services. It also would seek to actively manage and monitor the security of smartphones, tablets, wireless fidelity bridges and other technologies while minimizing vulnerabilities. “This is DISA’s first formal look at the implications of being a mobile service provider,” Allison says.

So far, the fledgling research efforts have raised more questions than answers. Ideally, centralizing control of mobile devices under an MVNO at DISA or elsewhere in government would result in military recruits receiving a military-issue cell phone at the same time they receive their boots and uniforms. Allison visualizes devices capable of adjusting their behavior based on the location, security levels and a variety of other criteria. “My ideal would be to provide a phone that would work day-to-day around the world on any network as securely as possible but that could also be used on the battlefield,” he asserts.

A phone on the battlefield, for example, automatically would shut down less secure or unnecessary applications, or it could function differently in various locations within the same building. “For instance, I come to work, walk in the front door, and the phone connects to the military network. But I’m in the hallway. The phone knows it is in the hallway, and it is allowed to function normally. If I go into a more secure area, perhaps the phone goes to receive-only mode or message traffic only, or preformatted text messaging, or it ceases to function entirely while it’s in the secure area,” Allison explains. “Maybe the phone itself stops working, but the processor still functions so that you can use it like a laptop.”


1st Lt. Andrew Moehl, USA, of 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, radios in his team’s status in Kandalay, Afghanistan. Soldiers may one day use cell phones to report their status.

In addition, it is possible that the subscriber identity module (SIM) card with each phone would be programmed to connect automatically to the military network when and where it is available. But otherwise, it would use whichever commercial network offers the best price in that specific location. “What I’m thinking is that you could have a SIM card that’s programmed on the various networks, and then the policy can determine that the phone runs on the network that offers the best cost to the department at that particular time and location,” Allison suggests. “It might be that at some locations, the best deal during the day is with AT&T, but at a certain time of night, it switches to Verizon, and the phone knows that, and it switches accordingly.”

To make that happen, the Defense Department possibly could purchase bulk bundling agreements for mobile network services. “You could buy bundling agreements for 100 countries and 200 carriers, and you could get bundling agreements for calls to Afghanistan that cost less than 10 cents a minute where a single carrier might charge a dollar,” Allison offers. “There’s the potential we could buy these bundling agreements and then charge the services a fee—like $40 a month per phone. That would save money from what we’re paying now, and it would provide money for DISA to maintain the infrastructure.”

Other possibilities include paying a single vendor a set fee and allowing that organization to charge the services and agencies for cellular minutes, or allowing vendors to run the servers and architecture, or simply leasing phones and not even building a military-specific network. So far, a wide array of options is open for consideration, according to Allison.

Whatever solutions the department decides on will likely require a phased-in approach. “I understand the DISA senior leadership would like to have some capability rolled out as quickly as possible. I think we’ll do a phased rollout, whatever we do,” Allison says. He adds that in the early phases, mobile phones still may be forbidden in secure facilities, but as buildings add the Defense Department network, cellular devices could be allowed inside. It is possible the military could even begin by acquiring commercially available cell phones and “slapping a Defense Department label on them,” Allison says, but the phones would first have to meet the stringent security requirements.

Then again, building a military network ultimately might prove prohibitively expensive. Allison emphasizes that it is simply too early to tell. A military network, though, likely would require so-called cell “tower in a box technologies” such as picocells or femtocells, which provide smaller networks in office buildings or remote locations.

The department also likely will have to settle for devices offering less than an optimal solution because it simply cannot afford the time and money to field a perfect system with top-level encryption and a wide range of software applications. “I don’t think we’re ever going to have a 100 percent solution. I don’t think that’s an option,” Allison says.

He suggests one idea that he says is new to the department: the ability to adjust encryption and flexibility levels to meet the conditions at the time. “Another possibility is to have a sliding scale to be moved dynamically by administrators so that they could decide how much flexibility and how much security they need. Perhaps that scale moves on a phone-by-phone basis, depending on its location or world conditions or network activity,” Allison says. “A number of factors could be used to determine whether to clamp down security.”

Part of the reason the Defense Department needs to serve as an MVNO, Allison states, is that the services already are fielding mobile devices on their own. “In my mind, that creates an urgency from the DISA perspective because now you have the services deploying their own ad hoc cellular solutions. That’s OK. It’s just that, to me, it would be more effective if we had a centralized management of the cellular services.”

In addition, the Defense Department runs the risk of falling woefully behind the rest of the world. Allison predicts that desktops, laptops, Common Access Cards and even banking cards soon will be relics of the past with cell phones serving as “computer, identification and wallet.” Soon, he says, hotel rooms and airports may provide keyboards, monitors and docking stations so that travelers can work from their mobile devices rather than lugging laptops everywhere they go. If the Defense Department cannot keep up, it risks being unable to attract younger generations, he points out.

Already, Allison sees the department falling behind commercial vendors. “DISA is a combat support agency. We are also the Internet service provider and the telephone AT&T, Verizon or Comcast for the Department of Defense. All the other guys are providing mobile services, and we’re not,” he says.

Allison admits having personal reasons for wanting to provide mobile devices and services. “I just want to take my cell phone into my office. That’s my ulterior motive,” he quips.

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Interesting thought. I was at the inception of the move away from the Air Force dedicated data network to use of the internet because continued operations, maintenance, and expansion of the former had become cost prohibitive. DISA currently provides significant support of military satellite requirements by leasing bandwidth from commercial providers because it is more cost effective than owning and operating additional DoD satellites. It would seem a very in-depth cost-benefit analysis would be in order, to verify that owning and operating a dedicated, wireless telecom infrastructure would follow a significantly different fiscal paradigm than internet and satellite use. Intuitively, it would seem more cost effective to establish the equivalent of a DoD, wireless VPN making use of existing, commercial infrastructure. This would be especially true in support of operations taking place in geographic areas which do not support U.S. wireless standards.

Interesting thought, indeed! Thank you for sharing your insights. Anyone else like to chime in?