Military, Public Safety Officials Still Looking for Help on Mobile Tech

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Defense Department and other government organizations are paying attention to new mobile technologies and want to be able to use the latest smartphones, tablets and applications. However, figuring out how to do so quickly and securely remains a challenge, officials said, even as various departments and agencies have embarked on new initiatives and pilot programs to expand mobility in government.

The Defense Department and military services are in the midst of implementing a strategy that will expand the types of mobile devices permitted for use at work and start up an app store. It also puts a mobile device management system into place to protect military networks.

Certifying new gadgets has become a faster process, but the Defense Department has to do a better job of explaining the strategy so that industry knows what steps to take to get their products in the hands of employees, said Brian Teeple, principal director for the deputy chief information officer for command, control, communications and computers and information infrastructure capabilities for the Defense Department’s chief information officer.

“If we take as long to certify as we used to, we’re already behind,” he said during a panel at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s Mobility Technology Symposium Aug. 8 in Washington, D.C.

A common misconception is that the services are looking for purpose-built mobile devices that are secured at the hardware level, said Gary Blohm, director of the Army’s Architecture Integration Center.

“We can't keep up with the commercial industry that way. We think we need to do the security by software, and we can't pick a device for our leaders. If we go to our leaders and say, here's an iPhone, somebody in that group is going to say, 'But I don't want an iPhone, I want a Samsung,'" he said. "And what they want today is going to be different than what they want tomorrow."

Getting those new products to military leaders and officials is only half the battle. Even after introducing new tablets or smartphones, the military will need to figure out how to incorporate those devices with the radios and satellite communications devices that troops use in the field, Teeple said.

It will also continue to look for better ways to identify a user’s identity, he added. "I think we'll see movement on face recognition and voice recognition. How do you use that instead of a CAC [common access] card?"

The Defense Department and military services are evaluating myriad apps, devices and service carriers as part of its mobility pilot program that is led by the Defense Information Systems Agency.

The Army alone has fielded 2,500 new mobile devices as part of the program, with senior leaders making up 500 of that number, Blohm said. Users were allowed to pick from a list of approved devices, which allowed the Army to better understand user preferences, he added.

As part of the program, the military is testing face recognition and translation apps, Teeple said. He also cited money-saving logistics apps to track supplies as another need across the services.

Eventually, military leaders could use troops’ mobile devices as sensors, enabling them to track friendly force movements and take in the sights and sounds of what is happening in the field, Teeple said.

Blohm implored the audience of industry officials to come to the military with new ideas and to point out when requirements are poorly written. "When we put something in the requirements that doesn't make sense, it's handcuffing us, limiting competition,” he said.

Meanwhile, the public safety and first responder communities are encountering their own challenges with mobile communications. The public safety community received approval from Congress last year to develop a national wireless network for their exclusive use.

“There’s no network now in the United States — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile — none of those provide national coverage, yet this has been identified to provide national coverage,” said Rear Adm. Ronald Hewitt, director of the office of emergency communications at the Department of Homeland Security.

The First Responder Network Authority board (FirstNet) — made up of public safety and industry officials — will build the system. Once the board decides on technology standards, vendors will be able to build devices, or modify what they already have, and market them to public safety agencies.

Typically, public service organizations operate using land-mobile radios, “which [are] a fairly secure … analog kind of system,” Hewitt said. “Now they’re going to data, so they have to worry about the cybersecurity perspective.”

Public safety officials and first responders are going to need long-lasting battery life and devices that don’t hinder the user from doing their job, Hewitt said. “If they’re law enforcement, they’re probably not going to want to sit there and be thumbing through their iPad as they’re trying to apprehend somebody.”

They will also need mobile apps that are developed specifically for different public safety communities, as well as processes to certify and credential apps, he added.

The FirstNet board so far has released 10 requests for information from industry, Hewitt said.

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, C4ISR, Tactical Communications

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