Before entering the private sector, Lance Spencer served in the U.S. Air Force for 26 years. His roles within the service branch primarily focused on cyberspace, networks and information technology. He also supported space and intelligence missions.
Now, as client executive vice president for defense at AT&T, Spencer leads the company’s efforts to help the U.S. Department of Defense modernize its operations with 5G offerings.
Spencer recently sat down with ExecutiveBiz for an Executive Spotlight interview, in which he discussed the immense potential of 5G, its ability to transform the way the military uses technology and the challenges that may be faced in its development and deployment.
As technology develops, what is on the horizon for 5G?
In 2020, the DOD committed $600 million to explore 5G capabilities, and AT&T was selected to participate in more of the department’s 5G experiments and prototypes than any other telecommunications carrier. We also deliver enhanced communications capabilities, including 5G, at many military bases and installations.
Recently, we began delivering 5G at Buckley Space Force Base in Colorado, supporting the work of tens of thousands of personnel. Commercial 5G is viewed as a capability that can improve the quality of life for base personnel and their families. But as the military builds out its mission systems, sensors and operating capabilities in a 5G environment, it needs a baseline foundation of commercial 5G to get there. Pockets of 5G will not accomplish the scale of military needs.
We have ways to protect military traffic in the 5G environment, and we can allow the military to maximize the benefits of our considerable investments in advanced communications services. The DOD can use our 5G network without building a 5G network themselves and benefit from the cybersecurity protections integrated into it.
The Wants and Warrants database that underpins the Defense Biometric Identification System is just one example of the capability we enable with our 5G at Buckley Space Force Base. It’s a system used at base entry points to control base access. Threats to bases can change in a heartbeat. They were using manual systems, often with outdated information about personnel clearances. Now, the database updates wirelessly and automatically over the 5G network, reducing the risk of threats to the base.
Future 5G use cases may include in-vehicle connectivity for security forces, fire departments, aircraft maintainers and civil engineers – especially with FirstNet. FirstNet is the government’s national public safety broadband network, developed by and for first responders and the U.S. public safety community and built and delivered exclusively by AT&T in public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority. Eligible military public safety organizations have access to FirstNet’s priority capabilities and, for first responders, priority and preemption, to easily interoperate with other first responders using FirstNet in communities near the military base as well as at the federal, state and local levels as events happen and as situations require.
5G can be a force-multiplying solution, enabling autonomous vehicles and robotics where the need is near real-time, low-latency connectivity solutions that are responsive.
We are also participating in a project to enable a Navy smart warehouse with our 5G service. We are delivering a private 5G network within the warehouse environment to automate and streamline processes to allow the Navy to deploy artificial intelligence in supply and materials management, including distribution and transit visibility within the warehouse, base and other environments. In this project, our private 5G network demonstrated data speeds of 3.9 gigabits per second with less than 10 milliseconds of latency: high-speed connectivity with extremely low latency.
We are also excited about our collaboration with AST SpaceMobile, which is developing and testing the first space-based broadband network to connect everyday cellular devices. Typically, space-based assets require an expensive, proprietary terminal, and that terminal re-distributes the signal terrestrially. We expect the solution will ultimately deliver communications services to everyday cell phones, IoT devices and commercial devices so that users won’t need special equipment or software. We expect to be able to deliver connectivity wherever it is needed, so if you are in a location with no fixed terrestrial infrastructure, the space-based infrastructure may support your voice and data connectivity. A critical milestone we’ve supported is the world’s first space-based direct voice call using an everyday 4G LTE smartphone connected by the AST SpaceMobile lower orbit satellites.
Our work with AST has demonstrated space-based 4G LTE cellular broadband, reaching speeds of about 10 megabits per second. These are historic first steps toward providing even more expansive connectivity. We have also opened our wired radio access network, which brings many opportunities, including a better cost structure, better performance and resiliency, and it invites competition. Open Radio Access Networks will allow the military to use open standards and interfaces to implement their technology on wireless networks.
The military-industrial complex will be able to layer and integrate those capabilities with interoperability across our network so the fusion of military capabilities in the commercial network can be fully realized. Over the next few years, we expect to see a lot of advances to offer an excellent capability for the military.
What role does 5G play in connecting Internet of Things devices and providing connectivity at the tactical edge? How do you think those capabilities can be improved?
I expect to see a massive proliferation of IoT devices, including at the tactical edge. There are several ways for the DOD to take advantage of this, including private networks that move the operation and the core of the network closer to the tactical edge so the department can get the real value from low latency and high bandwidth to support capabilities like artificial intelligence, autonomy, machine learning and more. These capabilities will help converge disparate networks, such as non-terrestrial networks, Wi-Fi 6 and DOD solutions, including the potential use of DOD spectrum on cellular networks. 5G eliminates network seams and allows the entire scope of wired, cellular and Wi-Fi networks to manage a single fabric, which is essential.
The first way to enable data interoperability is to have network interoperability to eliminate seams that block access to data critical to decision-making. Network interoperability helps to ensure connected sensors can interact with each other and provide actionable information. A software-defined architecture offers benefits like optimized network traffic routing, automated software updates and the avoidance of vendor lock-in. It can allow the DOD to rapidly onboard capabilities, reduce risk, use improved technologies, achieve economies of scale and have a platform for innovation.
What barriers remain in achieving widespread 5G deployment and getting 5G into the hands of our warfighters?
There are several barriers, all of which are solvable. The first step is working through the problems together and building trust. Once we build trust, the ability and willingness to reduce the obstacles and bring on capabilities to help warfighters will accelerate. The first thing that comes to mind for me is base coverage builds. The reality is that military bases often suffer from coverage gaps. We have a nationwide 5G network that lights up most major communities in the U.S., but because of barriers getting onto military bases, the military isn’t benefiting from that.
We’re seeing innovations where we’ve delivered private 5G service to the DOD, but the department isn’t yet able to scale and bring their entire enterprise to it. Commercial carriers have invested billions into network coverage, spectrum and innovations that the DOD cannot replicate on its own in a timely and cost-effective manner. There is no need to reinvent it; it exists. If we can work through the problem of just getting onto the base and getting the proper approvals, we can bring that investment and build out the network coverage.
Using commercial standards and reducing reliance on the military’s unique and often proprietary standards will help the military adopt capabilities that can be adapted to military missions and use cases. Often, military use cases aren’t unique to the military. Commercial sector users with similar use cases sometimes require even more stringent data security, data protection and cyber protections. Those use cases are helpful as a starting point for the military to accelerate its adoption of commercial capabilities quickly.
The DOD’s procurement standards continue to be a significant impediment to innovation. We have solutions on the shelf today that can be onboarded rapidly if those standards are streamlined.
I often say that the Federal Acquisition Regulation is necessary and reasonable, but commercial terms and conditions are as robust. Large companies, hospitals and other private sector entities operate on rigorous commercial terms and conditions with specific thresholds regarding security, costs and pricing. Those commercial terms and conditions have been hammered out. They are very robust. If the DOD can find ways to work them into their procurement process, it could help streamline their acquisition of commercial capabilities. Instead of using a commercial acquisition approach that allows for fast onboarding with some modification, the DOD often chooses a costly and time-consuming internal research and development process or procurement process. Every time we are required to customize, it adds expense and decreases the performance of a commercial solution that may not need that customization.
As AT&T’s defense business lead, you meet regularly with DOD leaders and decision-makers. What are your priorities and viewpoints when you can share them with DOD leaders?
When talking to military leaders, there are two things I suggest. First, don’t spend the military’s limited resources solving problems we’ve already solved. Instead, use the capabilities we have already developed and scaled. You might have to spend military resources on unique military issues or interoperability and integration as you transition to commercial networks. Still, there is a cost-benefit to taking advantage of investments we’ve already made and solutions we’ve already perfected.
Second, take maximum advantage of commercial terms and conditions. They are robust, reliable and often meet the needs of the most demanding, largest commercial customers. These standards will protect the DOD while removing the need for expensive customization and interoperability requirements contained in equivalent but different FAR requirements that limit the ability to onboard commercial services and become a barrier to entry.
Where are you seeing the most exciting opportunities to deliver better capabilities to our warfighters today, and how are you harnessing these opportunities?
It begins with 5G and the ability of commercial providers to accelerate the DOD’s path to modernized connectivity. Besides what I’ve already mentioned, I’d like to point to at least three other opportunities for the department.
The first one is the 9-1-1 service enabled by commercial providers. AT&T invented the 9-1-1 service, and we’re a leader. The DOD needs to consider commercial providers bringing state-of-the-art 9-1-1 services to their bases.
Public safety communications are paramount for the DOD. FirstNet offers a completely modernized approach and comprehensive capabilities to base public safety personnel, including priority and, for first responders, preemption capabilities when needed. It can allow first responders to easily connect and communicate with neighboring private sector first responders on the FirstNet network to manage incidents. Interoperable communications across responding organizations, regardless of origin, are vital to delivering emergency services in a crisis.
One other capability I’ll mention is network-connected robotic dogs. Our network-connected robotic dogs can deliver a range of IoT use cases. Many emergencies require putting personnel in dangerous situations. Our network-connected robotic dogs can move across natural terrain, including sand, rocks, hills, rubble and human-built environments like stairs. They can operate fully submerged in water and swim like living dogs, and they are readily equipped with sensors that allow them to operate autonomously without human intervention. They can be outfitted with drones that can launch and return to their backs while in motion, allowing the drones and dogs to perform missions as an integrated team. Using network-connected robotic dogs to inspect mines and detect explosive devices like IEDs is a prudent way to eliminate putting personnel in dangerous situations. The same applies to situations involving chemical, biological, or nuclear hazard environments: send in the robotic dog, not the human.
Robotic dogs provided to the Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida patrol the flight line and base perimeter at Tyndall, feeding video data in real-time to base personnel who can safely track activity 24-7, 365 and support the safety of base operations. This is an excellent example of a commercial capability that is military-ready.