Navy relief works wirelessly

SAN DIEGO -- The Navy has deployed a cellular telephone system that will link medical personnel onboard the hospital USNS Mercy with humanitarian assistance teams providing post-tsunami relief in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

Adm. Walter Doran, commander of the U.S Pacific Fleet, announced deployment of the cellular system at the West 2005 conference hosted by AFCEA International Feb. 2, the day the Mercy relieved the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier off the shore of Sumatra.

Chuck Saffell, president of federal network solutions at Nortel Networks, donated the system to the Navy to help support humanitarian operations in Indonesia. The Mercy picked up the cellular equipment in a tightly choreographed logistics operation at a Singapore port just three days before the hospital ship arrived off the Sumatran coast.

John Marcy, Nortel's project leader for the cell phone system, said equipment donated to the Navy includes two small cellular base stations that fit into suitcases and two telescoping masts with a range of just under two miles. The system can support 56 users in a closed-loop system that operates on the Global System for Mobile Communications standard.

Users of the Navy system can communicate with one another in Banda Aceh -- the headquarters for military, civilian and nongovernmental relief operations -- and with Mercy via commercial satellite links to the wideband Challenge Athena satellite dish aboard the ship.

Nortel supplied the cellular PBX systems while Cell-Tel Government Systems supplied the base stations. Global Broadband Solutions and Maritime Telecommunications are providing the satellite links, Marcy said.

He added that the system will only support authorized users to ensure that calls get through without interference from other users. The closed system will also reduce the load on the limited commercial cellular systems operating in Banda Aceh. The system can also support personnel from Project Hope and the World Health Organization.

Although Nortel has donated the system specifically for use in Banda Aceh, company officials see a potential for future sales of such systems to support other humanitarian relief operations, Saffell said. Linton Wells, the Defense Department's CIO, said in a speech here that one of the lessons learned from the extensive tsunami relief operations is the need for the U.S. military to develop "peace nets" or "social networks" to communicate with civil authorities during such operations.

The DOD Office of Force Transformation has worked in Indonesia since late January to set up such networks through a contract with MindTel. David Warner, MindTel's director of medical intelligence, said his company has worked to bridge the gap between DOD's classified and unclassified networks and networks operated by civil authorities, including United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations operating in Indonesia.

Because of the security requirements that govern the use of even the Non-secure Internet Protocol Router Network, MindTel transferred data from one network to another via recordable media, such as CDs and DVDs, Warner said. This approach to moving data, especially imagery, proved to be a good way to work around the limited bandwidth available in Indonesia.

Early in the operation, MindTel officials used helicopters to fly imagery information from U.S. military units to civil agencies and nongovernmental organizations, Warner said. The company eventually managed to establish a "social network" node on the Lincoln, and the distance for moving recordable media shrank from a matter of miles to a matter of feet between two workstations.

Warner agreed with Wells that DOD should develop networks and policies that would make it easier to set up disaster relief operations in the future.

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