DISA eyes central management of 1 million cellphones and other wireless devices

The Defense Information Systems Agency has bold plans to centrally manage and monitor 1 million cellphones and other mobile gadgets Defense Department personnel use. It wants industry to provide suggestions for how to do so by June 20.

In a request for information released in May, DISA said it wants to establish itself as a mobile virtual network operator, an entity that leases bandwidth from mobile carriers and then resells it.

DISA said it wants to use the MVNO structure, which is widely used in Europe, to better manage cellphones and to monitor their security "while minimizing the overall attack surface exposed to adversaries."

In addition, DISA said it wants to extend this management structure to include smartphones, tablet computers and Wi-Fi access. To plug cellular coverage gaps, the agency would consider using the contract to deploy low-power, short-range transmitters know as femtocells, typically used in homes or small business, or picocells, used in office buildings, malls, airports and train stations that lack full coverage from cellular carrier base stations and towers.

The MVNO would centrally manage the subscriber identity module cards -- chips that include the phone numbers and security modules, including encryption keys -- and would give DISA the ability to block phones or other mobile devices from accessing the mobile network.

The network managed by the MVNO would feature an always-on VPN and would include dedicated links to government centers handling the mobile phones and other gadgets, DISA said.

Currently, Defense does not have a central cellphone services contract. The Pentagon, military services and even individual commands negotiate separate contracts. Cellular service for personnel stationed in the Pentagon, for example, is provided by Defense Telecommunications Services-Washington, which has contactswith AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless for domestic service and Cellhire for international service.

The Navy has its own separate contracts with the four domestic carriers as well as with the Army and Air Force.

Bernie Skoch, a telecommunications consultant and retired Air Force brigadier general with extensive telecommunications experience, said it makes sense for DISA to want to centrally manage its mobile phones and computers, with increased security being the real payoff.

DISA said it views any potential MVNO contract as a "niche telecom business" that would provide service to Defense, along with other federal agencies, and state and local governments. Skoch agreed, and pegged the value of the MVNO contract at $`10 million.

Marlin Forbes, former Defense vice president for Verizon, estimated the value of the underlying cellular contracts managed by the MVNO would be at least $50 million a month, assuming a modest $50 a month bill per phone for 1 million phones.

Forbes said DISA faces a daunting task in managing cellular phones globally. "I don't know anyone who can do that today" in myriad countries where Defense personnel are stationed, he said.