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How Next-Gen 5G Field to Lab Performance Testing Helps Optimize Military Communications for Tomorrow’s Smart Bases

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Contested and congested military environments pose challenges, where next-gen field to lab performance testing and evaluation of 5G networks help optimize smart base communications.

For the Department of Defense (DoD), where critical decisions and orders are vital and time sensitive, effective and reliable smart military bases in field operations are a primary objective. To support the full range of base activities, clear audio, robust video, and timely data, communications cannot be delayed or corrupted in transmission.

Yet, in contrast to commercial networks, these bases – often set up in a wide range of challenging forward environments – will have no infrastructure in the ground and are unlikely to have fiber or integrated access to backhaul. Furthermore, noise, user movement, distance, vehicle and aircraft speed, geographical topography, physical infrastructure, and other factors common in contested and congested environments can impair connectivity or compromise performance. Impacting factors vary in form and over time, making it difficult to test fully in an active live field environment.

For example, testing of 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) performance, spectrum sharing, or the quality of data, video, and voice communications as a forward operating base is getting stood up, will not capture the actual future environment of the installation once it is fully commissioned and launched at scale. How can the military test those variables and optimize performance before it goes live?

One answer is next-gen field to lab performance evaluation for 5G. Field to lab evaluation is a “best of” testing approach that combines the capture of live field environment feedback with the stability and flexibility of the lab to understand the performance of 5G communications networks and technologies. Field capture data log files are imported and replayed in a lab testbed to identify potential areas for concern and to test performance once adjustments are in place to ensure those concerns have been addressed.

Utilizing field to lab performance evaluation for smart base FWA

Since FWA involves line-of-sight transmissions of signals from antennas to the targets, understanding how FWA behaves in the field is essential for knowing where and how it needs to be improved, for example with antenna placement, which is an essential variable impacting signal quality. Additionally, for bases without fiber connectivity, integrated access and backhaul (IAB) technologies may be employed in parallel to FWA, as a short-term alternative to fiber, or as a permanent option for more isolated antennas.

In these use cases, military network operators must be conversant on how the combination of FWA and IAB performs with its multi-hop backhauling. That includes understanding how the wireless connectivity benefits of IAB might degrade overall performance by utilizing too much of the available bandwidth.

A field to lab performance evaluation of the FWA can assess current conditions, test “what if” scenarios and inform adjustments for maximized FWA performance. Capturing current conditions baselines performance and identifies trouble spots. Enhancing the field data – adding noise or interference – can provide operators with a better understanding of future-state performance. If the base is interfacing with high-speed aircraft, testing can emulate their speeds and model the Doppler effect influence on communications with aircraft in rapid movement.

Test results guide crucial improvements to the smart base’s performance in the live field environment.

Evaluating dynamic spectrum sharing

Field to lab evaluation of spectrum sharing is another key to ensuring smart base communications are optimized. Military owns many spectrums, shares a number with the commercial market, and needs to reliably prioritize spectrums to ensure there is no overlap and interference. Especially in urban and congested environments, the commercial sector must not interfere with or degrade military access and communications. Dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), however, is difficult to test in the field environment, yet the military cannot leave sharing to chance where it must be prioritized and on demand.

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Military owns many spectrums and shares a number with the commercial market. Dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), however, is difficult to test in the field environment, yet the military cannot leave sharing to chance where it must be prioritized and on demand.

Capturing real-world forward operating environments, bringing them to the lab, and replaying them through testbeds with dynamic spectrum sharing scenarios provides critical understanding of current performance. Field testing can also incorporate artificial impairments to test for possible conditions and interference. Based on results, the military makes necessary RF radio adjustments to address anticipated DSS requirements well in advance of their anticipated utility.

Data, video and voice quality evaluation for congested and noisy environments

Congested and noisy environments – from a train station, to a smart base, to the front lines, and more – must not interfere with conveyance of timely decisions or communications. Signal strength is only one factor. Reliable video, voice, and data quality are all necessary to deliver essential communications.

Testing the performance of high-volume communications is required to ensure unfailing, clear, secure communications for troops and commanders in congested environments. However, when communications are first set up in forward bases, there aren’t the number of troops, vehicles or live conditions that will be in play when the base is at full operational capacity. Field to lab testing captures real-world environments to then emulate the future environment to help improve it for expected demand.

Drive and flight testing can capture baselines for specific military requirements. Walk testing, too, can assess signal-interrupting reflections of buildings and other topographical interference. When brought into the testbed, other field test captures can be incorporated to evaluate additional impairment factors. Captures can also be modified to emulate the presence of thousands of troops. Emulating the motion of vehicles and high-speed aircraft with their Doppler effect, at different speeds and vectors, can identify how voice quality might degrade or whether calls drop when transitioning from one location to the next.

Rhyme testing for speech intelligibility in forward operating environments

Normally, forward operating environments are noisy due to location conditions, troop, vehicle, and aircraft congestion, along with other factors. Then, add to that the chaotic scenario of being under attack. If troops can’t understand a commander’s orders as live weapons ordinance is going off, communication has failed. Ensuring that words and phrases can be heard and understood through contested conditions is critical to operational success and troop safety.

Quality of voice communications has long been measured using Mean Opinion Scores (MOS). Yet, MOS does not measure speech intelligibility. Traditionally, a panel of listeners would be employed to test communications and judge if speech and voice are intelligible. This method in live scenarios, especially in forward operating conditions, is unfeasible.

Rhyme testing is an emerging methodology that uses a rhyming profile of short words and phrases tied to an algorithm that models the human auditory system to score intelligibility. Automated rhyme testing in a lab environment can be used to measure baseline voice communications. Then they can be artificially impaired with background noises and run through “what if” scenarios for optimization.

Rhyme testing fosters enhanced intelligibility scoring in communications well beyond the traditional MOS scores, helping to improve voice communications in contested and congested environments.

Video performance for humans and machines

While assuring video for human-to-human communications is essential, video is also critical to monitor warehousing and essential supply transport logistics, as well as maintenance of the systems to support triage models. Unlike humans, machines don’t phone up to complain when video is degraded.

Within and between military bases, a high volume of communications exists, including uplink video sharing between installations in forward-facing positions and those to the rear. Field to lab evaluation can be set up to continuously monitor video and automate tests to ensure video reliability and quality. In these environments, field testing the performance of the video ensures nothing gets lost within those environments. Or, if the video is delayed or pixelated, testing can identify areas needed for performance improvements.

Capturing the real-world field machine-related environment data and replaying video in the lab helps identify issues impacting overall smart base performance. The lab environment can evaluate the robustness of a data transfer and video session quality, helping to negate causes of pixelated video, degraded voice quality, or delayed delivery.

Visualization and field to lab evaluation

When conducting tests and evaluations, it’s not enough to just capture and replay data sets. In some cases, those in charge of network operations need to visualize the environment graphically in 3D to effectively utilize test results.

A key element of effective military network validation for smart bases is being able to translate data into a graphically intuitive interface to guide optimization efforts. By overlaying the data onto mapping systems, military decision makers can apply the results within the context of the three-dimensional base environment display. It may be that the terrain – hills, valleys, or forests – are degrading communications that can be addressed with adjusted antenna placement by virtue of a feature-rich visualization capability.

The right testing strategy fostering smart base operational success

Having a mature testing strategy in place for military is critical for the success of their smart bases, now and in the future. The benefits of field to lab evaluations with a next-gen testing approach include:

  • Establishing a baseline: Initial assessments establish a baseline to understand current performance and to identify factors that need to be addressed to improve communications.

  • Repeatability: A field test is a point-in-time capture. It’s not feasible to return repeatedly to the field to test. Having a real-world baseline capture means multiple factors can be tested as needed against the initial baseline field captures without the additional time and expense of supplemental testing in the field.

  • Flexibility: The lab environment supports significant flexibility for testing additional conditions not yet present in the field environment. Lab tests can enhance the baseline capture with noise, movement, congestion, and other factors that may degrade signals. “What if” scenarios can also be used to test solutions designed to address those factors.

  • Relevance: Starting with the live capture of field environments makes the evaluation relevant to a specific environment. Using a 3D map overlay or other visualization transforms the data to a practical resource that guides optimization for each environment.

  • Ongoing insight: Automated continuous testing and evaluation helps to proactively monitor and assess changing environmental conditions, the impact of technology improvement adjustments, and expected or unexpected performance degradation – to ensure the highest quality of connections and communications in contested and congested environments.

As 5G evolves, it will be used to support the massive communication demands of future smart bases. With a multitude of locations, noise, movement, distance, speed, geographical topography, physical infrastructure, devices, use cases, and other factors, field testing performance at scale is untenable. Next-gen field to lab performance evaluation, performed by experts in 5G with the right technology and proven strategy, is needed to ensure reliable and high-quality audio, video, and data communication in the congested and contested environments of tomorrow’s smart military bases.

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Stephen Douglas
Stephen Douglas

Head of Market Strategy, Spirent

Stephen works for Spirent's strategy organization helping to define technical direction, new innovative solutions, and market leading disruptive technologies which make a real difference. With close to 20 years experience in telecommunications Stephen has been at the cutting edge of next generation technologies and has worked across the industry with multiple service providers, start-ups and Tier 1 OEMs helping them drive innovation and transformation. Stephen is an ardent believer in connected technology and strives to challenge, blur, and break down the silos which prevent innovation and business success.