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Air Force tests next-gen networks, devices for operational use

by Senior Airman Jason J. Brown
633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

2/6/2012 - JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (AFNS) -- Everywhere you look, people are tapping, talking and swiping away at smartphones and tablets. Rapidly-emerging technologies give users information immediately, and these super machines fit easily in the palm of your hand.

The Air Force is planning to implement these high-tech handhelds into daily operations and, in preparation, the Air Force C2 Integration Center kicked off the Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment here Jan. 13.

Dubbed Unified Communications I, the goal is to determine commercial cellular carriers' ability to provide sufficient service to support the Air Force's mission sets.

According to Ken Gunter, the JEFX event manager, the four-week experiment will test the networks and hardware of Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint to see if the carriers will accommodate communications needs.

Teams of emergency response, civil engineer and maintenance Airmen will use Apple iOS and Google Android-based smartphones, tablets and mobile hotspot devices in a variety of scenarios to test their functionality and effectiveness.

"Our goal is to do things smaller and faster," Gunter explained. "We need to move away from our current infrastructure, like (land mobile radios) and first- and second-generation wireless, and transition from five networks down to two -- wireless cellular and assured (local area network). Legacy systems have to go away, as they're too expensive to maintain and not flexible.

"Five years ago, we couldn't do what we're able to do now," he continued. "Now, I can put a device in an Airman's hand with all the capabilities of a phone and computer. The Air Force told us to find the future architecture of communications, and these devices are being tested to get us there."

In 2012, the Air Force plans to introduce "tens of thousands" of smart devices, according to officials. The JEFX will validate the mobile strategy being developed at the Air Force level and across the entire Department of Defense.

Gunter said the Air Force is choosing cellular over Wi-Fi connections because cellular is more secure, provides greater range, and costs less to operate and maintain.

"One or two cell towers can cover an entire base, as opposed to establishing potentially thousands of access points for Wi-Fi connections," he said. "Also, all four carriers will offer 4G coverage in our area here within the next year. With the current available 4G network, we have 10 times the bandwidth we had even four months ago."

The experiment will look at carriers' augmented technologies, such as the infrastructure needed on base to ensure maximum, uninterrupted coverage and improve signal penetration in buildings.

"We need networks and devices that will allow us to do our mission, like launching our planes and securing the base in the event that commercial communications goes out in a hurricane or other catastrophic event, when that communication is most critical," Gunter said. "For example, say there's a crash at an air show with 10,000-plus civilians on base, all using their cell phones. How do we prioritize network coverage to ensure first responders can do their job? That's what we're here to figure out."

The AFC2IC chose JB Langley as the test site for the experiment as a cost-saving measure. The organization's labs are located in surrounding Hampton, Va., and Air Combat Command mission partners are headquartered at JB Langley, eliminating temporary duty assignment costs.

The JEFX UC1 experiment will be followed by second field exercise, UC2, slated tentatively for July. During that exercise, the group plans to include units and personnel from Fort Eustis, and will focus on the features of applications of various devices.

"We want to pull in as many functional areas as we can here, including our Fort Eustis mission partners," Gunter said. "These technologies promote interoperability and allow us to avoid stovepipe systems. That cuts down response times and makes communicating more seamless, which further enables joint operations.

"Whenever there's a need to set up and assess new technologies, that's what we do," Gunter said. "Warfighters come to us with problems, and we help find solutions. We're excited about giving this amazing new technology to our Airmen to see how we can take the next step in streamlining how we accomplish our mission."



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