CBRS drives military to experiment with private wireless

Despite its name, the Mountain Express automated shuttle operates mostly on flat terrain. (US Ignite)

Open RAN, CBRS, 5G, public/private partnerships and IoT technology are all coming together at Colorado’s Fort Carson, where US Ignite has partnered with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) to build a dedicated 4G/5G network to monitor smart vehicles. The network will be part of ERDC’s $4 million Fort Carson Smart Transportation Testbed and will upload and analyze data from ERDC’s automated shuttle, called the Mountain Express. Fort Carson is home to a large number of retired military personnel, many of whom use the Mountain Express for transportation. 

For now, the network is aggregating data from the vehicles and sending it to a cloud every night. The next step will be capturing/analyzing data in real-time and the next step after that would be control of the vehicles.

US Ignite director of technology Scott Turnbull said the availability of CBRS spectrum brought the private network within reach for Fort Carson. US Ignite, a non-profit funded by carriers, integrators and vendors, as well as the National Science Foundation, NIST and the DoD, is overseeing the network build as part of its broader effort to partner with communities to create smart cities. Nearby Colorado Springs is home to one of the smart communities being developed through US Ignite, and the team hopes that the Fort Carson network can eventually integrate with the smart city.

For the Fort Carson project, US Ignite developed an RFP and after reviewing bids it chose Tilson to oversee construction of the network. Tilson has extensive experience designing and building networks for private and public sector customers, but this project is the first of its kind for the firm.

"This is where the rubber meets the road in our efforts to innovate in 5G, autonomous transportation, and smart cities,” said Tilson CEO Joshua Broder in a statement. “We all expect to learn a great deal through this pilot that we can apply on bigger projects to come."

TIlson brought in JMA Wireless as the radio vendor and Federated Wireless to ensure access to the CBRS spectrum through its Spectrum Access System. "It's exciting to be part of this cutting-edge team coming together to create a reality-based vision for the future of smart transportation and smart communities," said Iyad Tarazi, President and CEO at Federated Wireless, in a statement. "I personally find it satisfying that the DoD had the vision to share their midband spectrum through the dynamic CBRS framework, and they are now able to take advantage of the spectrum for their own private use."

Turnbull said US Ignite was already familiar with both Federated and JMA, and was interested in working with a U.S. radio partner.

“Especially since this is a military installation … the decisions about how that hardware gets deployed, where it’s made, and what kind of security vulnerabilities, that should be a purposeful decision … and JMA was a great partner for supporting that for us,” Turnbull said. He added that US Ignite likes JMA’s upgrade path because it is software-driven, and was also attracted to JMA’s open RAN solution.

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“XRAN is the first and only carrier-grade software RAN solution in the world,” said JMA Wireless CEO John Mezzalingua in a statement. “XRAN not only provides the performance, flexibility, and security to meet Fort Carson's current IoT needs, but it can also easily expand to support future smart city applications with Colorado Springs and the University of Colorado Boulder."   

In addition to the vehicles, six cameras are connected to the network. The cameras connect to CBRS routers via Ethernet, and the routers use CBRS to connect to one of five JMA nodes which use point-to-point microwave to connect to one another and to a network hub that connects to the internet. The network operations center will be off-site and will be run by a third party.

“The ability to get high throughput was incredibly important in the autonomous vehicle use case,” said Turnbull. “We’re talking about terabytes a night potentially that come off of these vehicles. ... private network is one of the strong things that was needed to support that." He said other benefits include "the configurability of the private network, and then the ability to isolate traffic from the research testbed into a controlled environment so we can do all kinds of research, from research on the spectrum use to research on what the network packet flow would be.” The data generated by the network is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, and is processed in a government-owned cloud. 

Turnbull, a veteran of the US Army Intelligence Corps, said that in addition to its 30 partnerships with cities, US Ignite has a focus on bringing smart technology to military communities. “Maybe in the 4G era they’ve been left behind,” he said. “So they’re more mindful of moving forward purposefully in the 5G era.”