Alaskan company to test new shortwave technology

Success of the digital radio station may lead to military applications for special forces and intelligence operations.

The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday granted an Alaska company a two-year experimental license to establish a radio station that will test new shortwave technology that the Defense Department eventually could use to support intelligence operations.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Digital Aurora Radio Technologies, based in Delta Junction, Alaska, said in its license application with FCC that it planned to use a new open standards broadcast technology called Digital Radio Mondiale to blanket the entire state with crisp, near FM quality signals. It plans to transmit signals from Delta Junction, which is 95 miles southeast of Fairbanks. Shortwave broadcasters such as the BBC and Radio Australia currently use DRM.

DRM could be used for military purposes in much the same way the British used the BBC's shortwave services during World War II to transmit programming to occupied Europe and beam coded messages to agents operating behind enemy lines, radio analysts said. The company told FCC that its initial tests would be funded by and conducted for the Defense's Joint Electromagnetic Technologies program, a classified operation whose mission is to develop technologies for use by special forces and intelligence units.

Defense also will supply surplus transmitters from the closed, Cold War-era Over the Horizon Radar, located in Delta Junction. The radar system bounced shortwave signals off the ionosphere to detect aerial targets, such as Soviet bombers, at ranges up to 1,800 miles.

Digital Aurora provided numerous details in its filing about its broadcast operations, but offered no information on its tests for the Joint Electromagnetic Technologies program. The company said the purpose of the project is to provide a terrestrial digital radio service for the citizens of Alaska, and if digital transmission proves reliable, it will seek partnerships with content providers with priority given to nonprofit organizations.

Whit Hicks, Digital Aurora's president who also is the chief executive officer of the Delta Mine Training Center in Delta Junction, declined to identify the military purposes of the DRM shortwave test in an e-mail response to a query from Government Executive.

"We are still in the planning stage for our project and don't have much to talk about now," he said. "Our project is fairly basic at this point. We are just trying to determine if the theoretical propagation predictions hold up. If they do, we will see where it takes us. Until then its just basic research. Give us a year to see how things work."

Digital Aurora did not did not indicate in its filing whether it intended to broadcast programming during its two-year test. The company said it intends to broadcast unspecified types of digital audio during testing to determine the power levels needed to provide an adequate signal so that DRM receivers can decode the signal with high reliability throughout the state.

DRM easily can be adapted to fit the requirements of Special Forces, said Bennett Kobb, who runs a Web site advocating the use of DRM technology for development of a low-power broadcasting service in the United States in the 26 megahertz wave band. He said because DRM is a digital technology, it could be used to transmit data, imagery and maps to deployed forces.

But the narrowband high-frequency channels -- DRM operates at frequencies between 4.4 megahertz and 10 megahertz -- limit throughput. DRM transmits at a rate between 3,600 and 5,400 bits per second, according to industry estimates. That's far below high-speed Internet connections, which provide throughput in megabits per second.

Eric Johnson, professor of electrical and computer engineering at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M., said DRM could be used as a one way broadcast medium to support military operations. Johnson, who has helped develop high-frequency data standards for NATO, said there have been demonstrations using DRM to send charts to a ship sailing around Europe.

DRM could be used to send "change orders [and] map overlays to a team in the field," he said. "It would be hard to disguise a high-power, encrypted high-frequency broadcast, but with high-grade crypto, no one could read it so all they would get is that we're sending data. [And there is] no way to tell where it's going."

Johnson said DRM is not as robust as the Navy's High-Frequency Internet Protocol system, which supports two-way transmissions at 9.6 kilobits per second. "But DRM isn't bad, and the receivers are getting really inexpensive," he said.