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US military spearheads private 5G for California first responders

The US Department of Defense (DoD) is backing a new offering for first responders in California, including the California National Guard, that will allow them to instantly create a private wireless 5G network wherever and whenever they need it.

Broadly, the effort reflects growing interest in the ability for government agencies, enterprises and others to build their own private 5G networks. But it also highlights the growing role that the US military may play in the development of US spectrum policy and the future of 5G networking technology.

The DoD's new private 5G offering in California was developed by the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU). The organization is "focused exclusively on fielding and scaling commercial technology across the US military to help solve critical problems."

Nokia's latest CBRS products

According to the agency, its private 5G offering was developed last year for the California National Guard to augment or replace aging two-way voice radio networks and trunked land mobile radio (LMR). Nokia and Fenix Group will provide 3.5GHz CBRS cellular radios and associated services for the network, while Somewear Labs will provide wearable devices.

Nokia's support of the DoD's plans comes as little surprise. The company's interest in the private wireless networking industry is well documented.

Users of the DoD's new offering will be able to access the network with their existing smartphones. "DIU facilitated teaming arrangements among multiple companies to provide transparent roam-in to private 5G service that does not require replacing the commercial SIM card on bring-your-own-devices. This is critical since most apps used for communication identify the user by their phone number, and if that number changes the user loses their identity," explained Army Maj. Gen. Jay M. Coggan, commander of the California State Guard, in a release.

The result, according to the DoD, will be a 5G network that California first responders can set up immediately.

"The project has the potential to have emergency responders show up to any site with personal or government issued mobile devices and use networked applications such as push-to-talk voice, geolocation and live maps of their surroundings – all while outside the range of existing cellular networks," according to the DoD. "The first to arrive can simply bring the private network with them using a vehicle-mounted, backpack, hand carried or wearable node."

Soldiers, spectrum and sharing

The DoD used the announcement of its private 5G offering to tacitly acknowledge some of its federal spectrum policy goals. "A full 5G mobile network isn't possible today because some of the industry standards involving dynamic cellular frequency allocation for 5G services are still being written, and some required components such as ultra-low power 5G, aren't yet available," the DoD wrote. "This prototype has the potential to allow for immediate fielding of the capability while avoiding delays from spectrum policy debates."

That language is noteworthy considering the US military earlier this year officially implemented its EMS [Electromagnetic Spectrum] Superiority Strategy. Part of that strategy involves a major shift away from policies that would reallocate federal spectrum for commercial uses such as 5G. Instead, the US military is pushing for a spectrum sharing policy that ultimately would allow soldiers to access all spectrum bands, regardless of how they're allocated.

"Spectrum sharing must be the new normal," argued Vernita Harris, director of spectrum policy and programs for the chief information officer of the DoD, at a recent event. "It's an operational need that we can't get away from."

The DoD's new private 5G offering in California is underpinned by a long-term goal among military planners to use 5G for virtually all battlefield communications. Backed by major military contractors like Lockheed Martin, the military's JADC2 (Joint All-Domain Command and Control) concept could eventually connect "sensors with shooters across all domains, commands and services" by using 5G.

Already the DoD has funneled $600 million toward 5G tests around the country.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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