La. guard takes unusual migration path
The Louisiana Army National Guard has awarded a contract to Rivada Networks of Crystal City, Va., for an interoperable wireless broadband communications network that leverages existing cellular infrastructure for day-to-day operations but can be made more robust quickly in times of emergency.
For normal voice and data communications, Rivada essentially would act as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) by reselling CDMA-based services provided by Sprint Nextel, according to Lt. Col. Ron Johnson of the Louisiana Army National Guard. Roughly 1000 army officers will be issued voice- and data-capable devices, according to Johnson. Among these are 300 recruiters who crisscross the state on a regular basis.
Johnson called the advanced data capability a big plus: “You can’t get that with a [standard portable] radio.”
Bob Duncan, Rivada’s senior vice president for government services, agreed. “This is far more than an LMR [land mobile radio] system,” he said. “We can push data to the edge of the network, and from the edge of the network. You know that’s what’s required these days … real data right from the scene.”
The 1000 or so officers who will be issued handsets this month — the system is expected to go live in March — represent the guard’s senior leadership, according to Johnson. As such, they would be deployed in a command-and-control role whenever a major disaster strikes and the guard is called to respond. A major responsibility for Rivada in this deal is to ensure that adequate infrastructure exists for these officers to continue using the same voice and data devices they use daily, which would be a significant plus, particularly in the immediate aftermath of such an event, Johnson said.
“The last thing you want the key leadership to have to do in a crisis situation is, all of a sudden, change the way they communicate, ” Johnson said. “For instance, Blackberrys — which we use on a daily basis — are a critical way we move data. What Rivada will do is provide assurance we have the connectivity we need.”
Rivada will use several tactics to provide that assurance. In areas that lack sufficient commercial infrastructure, it will erect towers. In the aftermath of major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, when commercial infrastructure often is rendered inoperable or is overloaded, Rivada will deploy its Interoperable Communications Extension Systems (ICES) that consist of cellular, satellite and LMR technologies, all of which leverage commercial off-the-shelf equipment. The gear is housed in three cases that can be loaded onto a Humvee; each case is light enough to be hand-carried to wherever it is needed, Duncan said.
The genesis of the $600,000 contract occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Rivada — working with the Army’s Northern Command — deployed a private cell phone network for the National Guard that also provided interoperable connections to state and local police LMR networks though an IP gateway. (Army Jet Ranger helicopters airlifted the equipment to the top of the Pan Am building, the tallest structure in New Orleans, according to Duncan.) The deployment also leveraged satellite service for backhaul purposes in areas where the conventional fiber optic and T1 infrastructure was knocked offline by the severe flooding that afflicted much of the affected area, particularly New Orleans, where much of the city was submerged under as much as 30 feet of water for weeks.
The new system will provide the same sort of connectivity, Duncan said. “These handsets will operate on the regular cellular network, like another cellular customer, but they also will roam onto the deployable system.”
He added that the system is scalable and could be expanded in the future to add first responders in the state.