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US Army wants soldiers to have advanced smartphones, wireless technology

US Army looking at smartphones, apps and advanced wireless technology

By , Network World
July 05, 2011 03:31 PM ET

Network World - As the U.S. Army ponders how to give every soldier a smartphone loaded with apps for military purposes -- and be able to support global communications not only with commercial cellular networks like Sprint, Verizon or AT&T -- it is also exploring how it can quickly set up its own wireless network almost anywhere in the world.

"The vision we're looking at is, every soldier is issued a phone," says Michael McCarthy, director of operations at the Brigade Modernization Command, Mission Command Complex, at Fort Bliss, Texas. Here the testing of commercial smartphones and tablets has been going on for several months, sometimes with soldiers toting them along for general administrative duties and training, or even taking them out in field exercises in the rugged desert surroundings. Along with McCarthy, Ed Mazzanti and Col. Marissa Tanner are leading the project the Army calls "Connecting Soldiers to Digital Apps."

MORE ON MILITARY APPS: Army readies apps for Android mobile combat devices

But lots of questions need to be answered before the Army can give the go-ahead to give each U.S. solider a smartphone. McCarthy says Army analysts are seeking to find out whether smartphones, as well as tablets, could be adapted to meet specific security and operational considerations the military has.

The Army wants to know if assigned military radio frequencies can be securely used with the new generation of hand-held devices in order to support a more custom-designed network that could be set up on the go.

The Army is exploring that possibility by reviewing three new wireless technologies -- one called Monax from Lockheed Martin, another from Oceus Networks (partnering with Northrop Grumman), and third, the "cognitive radio" gear from xG Technology.

McCarthy says Army technical analysts supervising the tests have been encouraged by what they've seen with xG's "cognitive radio" gear which enables "frequency hopping" by continually searching for unused frequency spectrum, a technique that McCarthy says appears to reduce interference problems. The xG equipment provides voice and data, supporting approximately 4MB for each smartphone user, though it is dependent on the number of users and the distance from a base station.

"Our target going forward is to hit 35 kilometers from the base station," says McCarthy about the Army's ideas for how it might set up a network of portable base stations on the go. The Army would like to be able to transport wireless radio base station equipment of some type to wherever it's needed, quickly setting up and tearing down a network for smartphones for assigned military frequencies.

The Amy appears to be the first among the U.S. military services to take this much interest in using smartphones, though the Air Force and Navy are motivated as well, says McCarthy. He adds U.S. allies, such as NATO partners, also have "significant interest."

But can commercial smartphones really meet the Army's security and operational requirements?

The Army is working to find out, checking out about 1,200 phones and other devices (including about 15 basic models of Apple iPhones and iPads, Google Android, and Microsoft Windows Mobile). "The folks at HP are coming out with a Web OS and they will send me some devices to test," says McCarthy.

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