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Creating Private Cellular Networks out of Thin Air

For teams that need to stay in touch in remote environments or under extreme conditions, such as during disaster response, armed conflict, or while conducting special operations, linking into commercial cellular networks is rarely an option.

When reliable communication is essential, but service is not available, “network-in a-box” (NIB) technology can create a private, high-bandwidth cellular network that can easily deploy at any time and to any location around the world. CACI’s cellular technology expertise has enabled the development of this NIB technology – which delivers secure cellular communications for customers anywhere, regardless of the state of existing telecommunications infrastructure.

The Case for NIB technology

During the response and recovery phase following extreme storms and earthquakes, wireless telecom systems can be rendered nearly useless for days or even weeks, on top of the isolation and harsh conditions created by knocked down power lines and impassable roads.

“Even though survivors may have cell phones, they wouldn’t be able to call for help,” said Johann Kim, CACI’s vice president of wireless programs. “Setting up a NIB could immediately connect victims with first responders or government agencies.”

NIB technology instantly creates cellular infrastructure in a range of situations or environments where it is sparse, non-existent, or temporarily unavailable. Humanitarian assistance relief missions in remote regions such as central Botswana, for example, require a reliable means to communicate with the Botswanan government, United Nations, or non-governmental organizations to arrange for the timely delivery of food, water, and medical supplies. A portable NIB can extend the reach of cellular networks when coverage is sparse or no longer available.

Firefighters controlling wildfires and other first responders in dangerous situations can be hampered by conventional radios, which are typically limited to voice functionality. If the dispatcher is a distance away, they may not be able to coordinate resources to reach critical areas in a timely manner because cell towers are too expensive to build and maintain in expansive rural forests. A NIB system allows for all responders to communicate with a dedicated long-term evolution (LTE) base station. In addition to voice and text, these users may need to access a mapping app on their phones for situational awareness, which a NIB could enable.

When military units need to quickly setup an overlay network without available access to in-country infrastructure, within minutes a forward-deployed team can have a NIB system set up and running in a communications bubble—effectively operating in congested environments on top of or through pre-existing adversary or commercial networks. The myriad scenarios this type of system can handle are well-suited to support U.S. and allied forces against peer/near-peer adversaries.

The State of NIB Capabilities

Today’s modern NIB systems consist of an elegant combination of specially designed subscriber identity module (SIM) cards and portable hardware barely larger than a rugged laptop. By utilizing configurable SIM cards to set up networks and eliminating the need for extensive cellular network support know-how, NIB technology is now more usable, accessible, and flexible.

“By simply switching a SIM card on any standard mobile device, these systems can provide a fully controllable LTE network that can reach up to a kilometer away,” said Charles Schott, a systems engineer at CACI International.

Ease of use is another element of today’s gold standard solutions, meaning non-expert operators can set them up in minutes with minimal training, although users may also want a manual control mode.

“Users tell us they want a NIB that can automatically scan for the cleanest channel but allow the option to choose from available frequencies in case of interference or if they wish to avoid a certain frequency range,” said Sid Smith, CACI’s vice president of engineering for wireless solutions. “We have built that flexibility into our solutions.”

Where the Technology is Headed

Today, LTE is the standard for global cellular communications technology, but many organizations are anticipating the jump in capability that 5G promises to deliver.

The National Security Agency has developed a program to standardize how mission partners leverage emerging technologies to deliver more timely cybersecurity solutions for rapidly evolving customer requirements. The Commercial Solutions for Classified (CSfC) program certifies commercial network solutions that U.S. Government agencies can use to create secure, encrypted networks. The program is designed to certify products so organizations handling classified data can be sure certified systems will keep classified information protected.

“Our technology roadmap includes designing all our future network-in-a box and related security solutions to be CSfC certifiable,” Schott said. “We also are working on a fully graphic user interface and a configuration script that will further automate system setup.”

For years to come, cybersecurity and sensitive data handling will continue to be top priorities for U.S. Government and national security organizations who need NIB systems. As 5G technology matures into widespread deployment, these organizations will likely demand technology that can keep up.

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