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Defense Department and FCC to Collaborate on 5G Testbeds

On October 23, 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense announced a plan to pilot 5G technologies on four military installations in partnership with private industry and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.  Lisa Porter, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, revealed the Defense Department’s plans during an appearance at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Los Angeles with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Diane Rinaldo, Assistant Secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).  Both Porter and Pai heralded the project, known as Defense Next Generation Information Communications Technology, as an opportunity to work with industry and collaborate across federal agencies to advance the Trump Administration’s policy of maintaining the United States’ global leadership in 5G.

The Defense Department will kick off the project later this month when it releases a draft request for proposals (RFP) seeking the private sector’s input on how best to test and deploy 5G technologies to achieve military objectives.  The Defense Department identified three use cases for the first round of opportunities to be included in the upcoming RFP:

  • virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR);
  • Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications; and
  • dynamic spectrum sharing.

A focus on cybersecurity will permeate experimentation in all three areas.  After reviewing responses to the draft RFP, the Defense Department intends to hold an industry day and publish a final RFP in December.

In her comments during the MWC panel and a conference call that followed, Porter emphasized the military’s commitment to 5G and remarked that the “DoD is all in.”  Porter noted the Defense Department’s belief “that the military that masters ubiquitous connectivity will maintain overmatch” and highlighted the importance of ongoing collaboration with the FCC and NTIA.

Spectrum sharing is an important issue for both the military and the private sector.  Historically, the U.S. military and other federal users have enjoyed exclusive access to wide swaths of spectrum, particularly the mid-band spectrum that is integral to 5G deployment around the world.  The commercial wireless industry has repeatedly asked the federal government to repurpose more mid-band spectrum for 5G, and several FCC commissioners have urged the Defense Department to either vacate their bands for private use or to share their spectrum with commercial operators.  For her part, Porter emphasized the importance of finding ways to better leverage spectrum for private use without detracting from the military’s ability to protect the homeland.

The draft RFP will also seek comment on VR/AR and IoT opportunities.  The military is particularly interested in using VR and AR to explore and expand its use of synthetic training environments through 5G networks, which promise to offer significantly enhanced bandwidth and lower latency to permit such military training operations on a ubiquitous, real-time basis  The Defense Department is also interested in testing IoT applications and devices to build “smart” warehouses that will help streamline supply chain operations and military logistics.

The Defense Department recently announced four military installations that will host the first rounds of testing and experimentation: (1) Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; (2) Hill Air Force Base, Utah; (3) Naval Base San Diego, California; and (4) Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Georgia.  These bases were chosen “for their ability to provide streamlined access to site spectrum bands, mature fiber and wireless infrastructure, access to key facilities, support for new or improved infrastructure requirements, and the ability to conduct controlled experimentation with dynamic spectrum sharing.”

The timing and scope of the final RFP will depend on passage of an FY2020 defense appropriations bill.  After initially requesting permission from Congress to redirect approximately $50 million toward 5G capabilities in FY2019, the Defense Department has asked for $436 million in FY2020 to fund its 5G efforts, including this project.  The Defense Department intends to introduce new opportunities for 5G exploration every quarter, pending the availability of adequate funds.