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CHIPS Articles: Controlling Rising DoD Cellular Service Costs

Controlling Rising DoD Cellular Service Costs
By John Gibson, Tracy Allison, R. Ramnarayan, Norman Jones and Marine Corps Capt. Josh Dixon - April-June 2011
The Department of Defense, through its various commands and programs, contracts a significant number of cellular communications annually. The advent of digital, packet-switched cellular communications, in conjunction with the use of IEEE 802.11n (wireless networking standard), may provide a means of reducing reliance on wired infrastructure for much of in garrison and deployed communications.

Smart phones provide a highly flexible platform for mission enhancing tools and critical computational capabilities to fielded troops. The growth of smart phone usage postures wireless technology to become the preferred means of administrative and operational communications for emergency personnel contact, recall and other uses. However, wireless usage assumes a ubiquitous, ever-present infrastructure that is not always accessible within structures or in remote operating locations. Options exist to resolve such issues; however, care must be taken to constrain the cost of acquiring and operating wireless technologies.

This article describes a path to exploring the utility of establishing select in-house services normally associated with mobile virtual network operators as a means of controlling costs. MVNOs provide tailored cellular services as an intermediary between consumers and mobile network operators (MNOs) or commercial wireless providers.

There are two domains in which one might propose the use of cellular technologies; each has a significantly different goal yet the potential for cost savings crosses both. For in garrison use, the potential exists to extend the normal workspace beyond the walls of a cubicle or an office so that the office is wherever the user happens to be.

For deployment support, tactical military systems are increasingly overshadowed and outperformed by the capabilities emerging within the commercial sector. Further, commercial off-the-shelf smart phones provide capabilities that support applications that are relevant to the military, such as position/location determination and reporting, movement tracking, orientation, texting and streaming video. Many of these commercial applications are already in use by military members as part of their daily off-duty activity. With the evolution of Web-based information sharing and data rendering standards, such as XML and HTML, the smart phone is also posed as a cost-effective interoperability enabler.

One need not look far to see how cellular technologies are shaping the future of government and business communications, nor to project how they may affect command and control. While the use of cellular technologies has yet to saturate the DoD (i.e., hundreds of thousands of subscribers compared to more than 3 million employees), the number of individual commercial subscriptions for cellular technologies and services issued by DoD is significant.

While specific quantities are difficult to Dixonenumerate, more than 250,000 cellular service accounts are active within the DoD, not including special programs that have purchased services in bulk to satisfy mission requirements. When emerging initiatives are considered, this number could easily grow to more than 2 million subscribers, many with more than one device. The devices often house more than a single radio transceiver.

Miniaturization of smart phone technologies continues, and remote access capabilities are becoming sufficiently secure to meet DoD requirements. Smart phones are more than just personal communications devices; they have become asset tracking and command and control components.

The potential for savings or unnecessary expense is staggering; a situation exacerbated by fragmented technology adoption by DoD organizations. A niche industry, the mobile virtual network operator, has grown within the commercial sector to control cellular service costs within the private and business sectors. MVNOs have made prepaid cellular service and flat-rate subscription service possible.

The DoD has long relied on a mix of contracted and in-house communications services to meet mission requirements. In the 1980s, the emergence of office automation systems changed how documents are generated, reducing the need for clerical support.

The emergence of packet-switched networks changed how text and data are delivered. Now cellular technology may represent a revolutionary change in how DoD provides voice services, in and out of the office. When coupled with wireless access to Internet Protocol networks, there is great potential for cost savings. The question then arises: “What is the most appropriate way for DoD to acquire or provide cellular services to personnel?” Perhaps the wireless industry has an answer.

There are options for cellular service that can significantly alter the decision process. Central to this issue are the concepts of the mobile virtual network enabler (MVNE) and the mobile virtual network aggregator (MVNA). A MVNO provides communication services based on the needs and interests of its customer base. A MVNE provides services, such as administration and billing, infrastructure management, technical support, and logistics to the mobile virtual network operator, freeing a MVNO from many operational burdens.

A MVNA provides aggregated access to multiple carriers without individual agreements between a MVNO and MNOs. The crux of a MVNO is that its focus is on its customers and how it can tailor applications or services for its customers.

Additionally, a MVNO may opt to employ a limited amount of infrastructure to mitigate coverage issues specific to certain localities or to extend coverage to areas outside that of its supporting MNO/MVNE arrangement. Such might be the case for the DoD, where a limited employment of cellular infrastructures, for remote locations or within the confines of military facilities, may be used to extend access to areas underserviced by commercial carriers or to provide specialized location-based capabilities.

Several obstacles must be overcome for the DoD to maximize its use of commercial cellular technologies. These include security considerations, acquisition regulations and policy constraints, which may pose a barrier to rapid integration of emerging cellular technologies. Security concerns are being addressed by the commercial sector in response to business considerations as well as privacy issues.

Industry may provide paths to resolve similar concerns within military or crisis response operations. However, the accreditation path by which technologies are certified for operational use must support the pace at which technologies are emerging, a daunting task at best. Further, policy directives must allow commanders the necessary leeway to use wireless technologies with careful consideration to the risks associated with them.

Emerging cellular technologies play an increasing role in the day-to-day activities of an ever-increasing number of users. Cellular technologies offer significant opportunities for DoD to leverage. However, without careful consideration, the costs of wireless services may become prohibitive. Careful consideration of the alternatives for acquiring and managing wireless technologies may mitigate the growth of costs. A carefully crafted solution may provide long-term savings, while increasing the communications and computational capability of DoD users and reducing interoperability disparities between data acquisition and delivery systems.

Additional information:
• “Mobile Virtual Network Enabler” –
• “What is a MVNE?” and “What is a MVNO?” – and
• “What does it take to launch a successful MVNO?” (The Besen Group) –
• “14th Mobile Wireless Competition Report” (FCC 10-81) May 20, 2010 –

John Gibson is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who serves as a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. Mr. Tracy Allison is with the Defense Information Systems Agency and is the chief of the advanced radio frequency branch. Mr. R. Ramnarayan works in the DISA advanced RF branch. Mr. Norman Jones is a retired DISA employee of 30 years and a consultant for DISA supporting the advanced RF branch. Marine Corps Capt. Josh Dixon, previously a computer science and business school student at NPS, is attached to MAGTF C2, Weapons & Sensors Development & Integration (MC2I PG11).

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