NTIA, Pentagon Move to Tackle 5G Interoperability Complexities


The aim would be to accelerate the production of an “open 5G stack ecosystem.”

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration wants feedback on the potential of a new “5G Challenge” it may create to promote interoperability in the burgeoning realm—and support the Defense Department’s ongoing military networking modernization efforts. 

Accelerating the development of an “open 5G stack ecosystem” to help push forward DOD missions would be the ultimate aim of the challenge activity NTIA is exploring, according to a notice of inquiry set to be published in the Federal Register Monday. 

“Recognizing the vital importance of fifth-generation (5G) wireless communications to U.S. economic and security interests, [NTIA] has made it a top priority to engage in 5G across a broad spectrum of topics,” the agency wrote. It added that the Pentagon established its own 5G Initiative in 2019, which NTIA is working in this case “under sponsorship of and in collaboration with.” 

That year, Defense unveiled plans to strategically launch 5G experimentations at a number of military bases.  

The document’s description of the technical motivation behind the challenge explains that open-source implementations aimed across many components of a 5G system—including the protocol stack—are gaining traction. Such stacks are essentially layers of elements enabling capabilities. Currently, the open 5G stack community is “diverse,” NTIA notes, but “different open 5G stack organizations are focused on different portions of the stack, with no clear division among the multiple implementations currently available,” and interoperability between those various implementations isn’t always a given.

5G offers supermodern capabilities like network slicing and mobile edge compute that can be used to create a secure wireless network for emerging solutions, like the smart warehouse the Pentagon is already prototyping as part of that broader initiative, which the National Spectrum Consortium also more recently became involved in.

“However the challenge the DOD is now facing is that these new 5G capabilities require interoperability between all the vendors that go into a specific solution,” 5G Security Advisor to the NSC Junaid Islam, told Nextgov over email Friday. “For example, a smart warehouse solution for asset tracking can easily involve 20 different products from beamforming antennas, asset tags, mobile compute, battery back-up, routers, application gateways, etc.” 

In other words, a lot of custom integration is required by existing 5G solutions—but that’s neither scalable nor a cost-effective deployment model for the Pentagon, Islam said. With NSC, he helps assist the broader vendor community grasp the Defense Department’s needs.

“To help facilitate and accelerate interoperability between vendors NTIA is seeking to create an open stack ecosystem,” Islam added. “This initiative is a true win-win for vendors and DOD as it seeks to create a plug & play for 5G solution architecture that will help the procurement and deployment process.” 

He further noted that one goal of NTIA is to define common application programming interfaces that can help simplify 5G solution components’ provisioning and management, and another is to “create interoperability between unlicensed 5G [Open Radio Access Network] solutions and carrier services from AT&T and Verizon to enable seamless roaming and improved resiliency.”

In the notice, NTIA said comments received will extend its understanding of issues that may arise in producing and executing the 5G Challenge competition, and help ensure that the activity “maximizes the benefit to both the open 5G stack market and the DOD on an accelerated schedule.” The agency organizes multiple questions across three categories: challenge structure and goals, incentives and scope and, timeframe and infrastructure support. 

Responses are due 30 days out from its publication.