Telia is building 5G cell towers for the battlefield

A contract between the Norwegian telco and its country's armed forces makes for an intriguing 'private 5G' use case.

Iain Morris, International Editor

June 16, 2023

4 Min Read
Telia is building 5G cell towers for the battlefield
Soldiers of the Norwegian armed forces on snow patrol.(Source:

Tank behind her, a young woman dressed in combat fatigues sports an incongruous-looking pink smartphone on a muddy road somewhere in Ukraine. Named Dasha, she is a practitioner of BYOD (bring your own device), a phenomenon normally observed in the office rather than on the battlefield. At one time, her Ukrainian military superiors would probably have confiscated the smartphone and given her a device built for the army to work on the army's own technology. But those days are gone.

"That is her main means of communication and with it she can communicate not only with friends and family but also with her fellow soldiers, with civilian ambulances and towing trucks to clear roads," said Henning Huuse, a manager of 5G business development at Telia Norway, who screened an image of Dasha during a presentation at Informa's Future Enterprise Networks Event in London this week. "Cellular networks are very resilient," he added. "Basestations can be shot one by one but it's difficult because they are spread all over the country."

Such considerations explain why Norway's own armed forces approached Telia about two years ago, asking for a service based not on proprietary technology but on the same 5G standard used by civilians. Their requirements for performance, security and reliability sounded familiar to Huuse, who had already worked on the development of private 5G networks for non-military enterprises. By ringfencing a part of Telia's public 5G network to provide service guarantees – a process known as network slicing – Huuse believed Telia could satisfy the demands of Norway's armed forces just as it would those of a typical client.

He turned out to be right. A unit called Telia Tactical Networks does now manage a 5G slice for the Norwegian armed forces, roping off sensitive data and providing service guarantees. On top of that, Telia has been developing a portable kit, in partnership with its suppliers, to provide connectivity for military operations.

Portable networks

Two mock-ups of movable cell towers were shown at Future Enterprise Networks. The larger one uses the same 5G antenna from Ericsson that would typically feature on rooftops in city centers. At the base of the tower, a black box hosts a battery as well as various computing resources. Those include Ericsson's radio access network software and a full "core" network designed by Athonet, an Italian vendor recently acquired by HPE. It is, essentially, a complete 5G network, providing connectivity over a radius of about five kilometers.

The smaller tower, which limits coverage to about one kilometer, comes with a battery and picocell, a unit normally deployed indoors. It appears to lack a separate core but does feature a Starlink antenna for satellite backhaul to the Telia network. Developed just a few months ago, it could be of interest to organizations besides the Norwegian armed forces operating in areas where there is simply no network alternative, says Huuse.

SIM management is still a concern in cases where soldiers like Ukraine's Dasha are bringing their own devices. The simplest solution today would involve issuing a separate SIM card for connecting to the tactical network, said Huuse. Ideally, however, Telia wants to be able to onboard devices to the military slice without hardware changes. This could be done by having users scan a QR code, giving a device management system control of the phone. The need for such functionality in Norway is driven largely by its home guard, formed of people who spend only a few days each year as soldiers. "We are not there yet," said Huuse. "That is the end game."

In the meantime, Telia is also still figuring out its own working relationship with the Norwegian armed forces. "We know how to handle a crisis and we have critical infrastructure, but we have never done it in wartime," said Huuse. "The challenge from the armed forces is see how far you can go. If we have to dress in uniform to do the job, we'll have to figure that out."

The real value of the deal could be to spur service and technology developments that can be taken into other sectors. Companies in public transport, mining, energy, logistics and media have very similar requirements to the Norwegian armed forces, according to Huuse. And many of the civilian technologies taken for granted today – from semiconductors to the Internet – had military origins. If that holds true in Norway, Telia Tactical Networks could turn out to be more lucrative than it sounds.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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