Naval Air Systems Command plans 4G cell service aboard ships

The commercial system could revolutionize shipboard communications.

The Naval Air Systems Command plans to leverage commercial cellular technology to test the broadband communications capability aboard three ships in 2013, and the results could lead to a revolution in shipboard communications, NAVAIR officials said.

The command plans to install advanced broadband 4G Long-Term Evolution cellular systems on ships in the USS Kearsarge amphibious ready group and their supply crews and embarked Marines using smartphones powered by the Android operating system. This technology, which commercial carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless use, will allow the Navy to take advantage of the global mobile phone industry's $30 billion annual investment in research, Larry Hollingsworth, the command's national director for avionics, told Nextgov. In his view, it's better to use limited Navy research funds to add requirements unique to military users, such as security, rather than try to build a system from scratch.

John Cooper, NAVAIR program manager for the 4G system, said the Navy expects that the commercial cellular gear, provided by Oceus Networks of Reston, Va., initially will have a throughput of 8 to 15 megabits per second, which at the low end is equal to a home Internet connection in the Washington area and at the high end is double the speed of a home Internet connection. He expects throughput to hit a gigabit per second within two years as manufacturers upgrade their gear.

Randy Fuerst, chief operating officer for Oceus, said the company's system includes cellular base stations provided by Ericsson and all the software needed to manage the network used by commercial carriers.

Cooper said NAVAIR will install the 4G system on the Kearsarge, the USS San Antonio and the USS Whidbey Island.

Cooper said the 4G systems on these ships will have a line-of-sight range of between 15 and 20 miles, which could be extended to 30 miles with a base station installed on a Marine H-1 helicopter.

Hollingsworth said the 4G base stations will support communications with 200 Marines and sailors deployed with the Kearsarge ready group who are equipped with Android phones. In addition to supporting voice calls, the phones will enable users to conduct persistent surveillance with built-in cameras and allow commanders to track them with built-in GPS systems. One Android phone, Hollingsworth said, could replace the multiple radios, cameras and GPS receivers that sailors and Marines conducting operations carry.

The 4G systems also will support the exchange of a variety of broadband data while the ships are under way, freeing up expensive and limited satellite bandwidth, he said.

Cooper said initially the 4G systems will support transmission of unclassified information only and NAVAIR is working with the National Security Agency to add enhancements to support the transmission of classified data.

NAVAIR personnel declined to discuss operations the Kearsarge ready group will conduct on its deployment next year. A justification and approval notice for the sole source contract with Oceus indicated the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command had a "mission critical requirement" for the system to support its Counter-Piracy Task Force, which operates off the coast of Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Asked why NAVAIR was asked to develop a shipboard communications system rather than the Naval Sea Systems Command, Hollingsworth said, "we have an innovative spirit at NAVAIR . . . this was our idea."