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DARPA Tackles Poor Cell Signals In War Zones

Through new Fixed Wireless at a Distance program, military hopes to make connections over both commercial and traditional military mobile devices more reliable.

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The military wants to build a new fixed-mobility infrastructure to connect currently limited-range warzone mobile networks to provide more reliable high-speed communications for both commercial and more traditional military devices.

Through the Fixed Wireless at a Distance program, the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA)—the research network of the Department of Defense (DOD)--aims to create a mobile backbone with unlimited scalability so warfighters no longer experience the poor cellular service they've traditionally had to deal with during military engagements.

"Dropped calls are an annoyance in a major metropolitan area," according to DARPA. "But when you're conducting military patrols in a remote forward-operating location, a loss of data signal means no connectivity between you, reachback support, firepower and valuable intelligence."

[ Here's how the military is beefing up other IT areas to help support soldiers. See DOD Seeks Rugged Routers, Better Networks. ]

The system will support three types of client devices--enhanced-range communication devices, legacy military radio systems, and commercial 3G/4G mobile or Wi-Fi devices, according to DARPA.

Currently, the military can't guarantee reliable mobile operations in remote areas because the military ad hoc networks (MANETs) they use don't cover enough ground, and military radios that make up the networks have a relatively short range.

The infrastructure DARPA envisions will connect small MANETs of military radios in the same way commercial infrastructure connects multiple cellular base stations and Wi-Fi access points, according to the announcement about the program, which also provides detailed diagrams of how the network would work.

To create the network, fixed-transmission facilities will be placed in protected areas, such as a forward-operating base or on strategic high terrain, and signals from them will be combined to reach distant radios, according to DARPA.

To provide the same sort of scalability commercial networks provide, DARPA and contractors working on the system must consider two things, the agency said.

The first is that the system needs to maximize geographic coverage rather than limit interference; and the second is that the system must support mobility and expeditionary activities where infrastructure cannot always be installed in advance of military operations.

Ultimately, the goal of the program is to enable mobile communications similar to the daily experience of using commercial devices in an area with good mobile coverage.

Those interested in responding to the announcement have until March 9 to submit abstracts and until April 6 to submit proposals. DARPA will consider making multiple awards for the program.

The military has a number of projects in place to improve communications in warzones, including a plan by the Army to build a mobile battlefield network based on Google's Android platform.

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