The critical importance of NATO communications

NATO’s Polycom technology provides command and control capability for meetings, international communication and operational mission collaboration across NATO’s highly protected restricted network. Claire Apthorp sat down with the head of the NATO Communications and Information Agency to find out how more about how its comms are run.


In 2017 NATO will move into its new purpose-built headquarters in Brussels. The building has been designed to accommodate the alliance’s changing requirements in a more efficient, high-tech and environmentally sustainable space that will include, among others, a focus on reduced travel needs for staff with the introduction of a new video teleconferencing system.

The system is known as the Polycom RealPresence system – a hybrid video, voice and data collaboration platform that represents a move toward NATO’s ‘new ways of working’ programme.

The implementation of RealPresence will support decision-making, collaboration and coordination for employees, military commands and deployed units, providing flexible and capable secure communications across the organisation.

Implementing RealPresence Centro for NATO communications

The RealPresence Centro solution was initially provided to and trialled by the NATO Communications and Information Agency – the agency responsible for connecting the alliance, defending its networks and delivering critical command and control capabilities in support of NATO operations and missions. Following successful beta testing, the system will be rolled out across the new NATO headquarters this year as a cohesive virtual collaboration tool.

The agency works within a complex requirement set when looking to make new communications acquisitions, meaning that solutions must conform to rigorous standards and capability sets.

“Our main priority is collaborative capability - we have 28 different nations in NATO, which means a lot of different languages to deal with, and that means that sound and video quality is paramount,” says Gus Mommers, head of conference management services at the NATO Communications and Information Agency. “Secondly, we need security – products that go on our closed secure internal networks need to be accredited to work on the three different network classifications that we have, and conform to the standards of each network layer.”

"Our main priority is collaborative capability - we have 28 different nations in NATO, which means a lot of different languages to deal with."

The systems and devices used have to be compliant with their security requirements before even being selected. The industry partner has to build security into the product  that is compliant with the security already in place on NATO's networks.

The main draw of the RealPresence Centro platform is that it has been developed with collaboration in mind, and is designed in a way to more accurately reflect the way the agency believes its stakeholders want to work together.

“For the last two years NATO has been reinventing the use of video conferencing systems,” Mommers says. “The days where we had large, bespoke rooms used by a few select people are long gone. We still use conferencing rooms to a degree but we are moving toward providing audio and video services at all levels – ranging from software solutions for laptops and mobile devices – and reinventing the way we collaborate.

“One of the great things about the conferencing solution is that people don’t lose their momentum. When they have an idea they need to discuss with their team overseas they don’t have to wait, travel or make an appointment – it’s about those ad hoc moments where something needs to be discussed quickly, enabling faster responses and more productivity overall.”

Encouraging natural collaboration remotely

RealPresence Centro achieves this by doing away with the traditional ‘bowling alley’ meeting room design of traditional video conferencing systems that have all users facing a screen. Instead, four touch screens are strategically placed in the middle of the room to create a natural experience that drives deeper collaboration and better outcomes. Its 360-degree voice and video technology automatically tracks the speaker, while also showing the entire meeting space on the same screen, drawing users into a collaborative circle.

“So that rather than users having to look up at the colleague on screen or look sideways at colleagues in the room, everyone is facing each other without losing eye contact with people on video,” Mommers says. “It’s something that is so important because we work with so many different nations and everyone around the table is equal.”

"Users can sit, stand and walk around the room while remaining on camera."

Polycom believes that in this way, RealPresence Centro shifts the communications technology from a distraction to engagement into an enabler for seamless collaborative communications.

Users can sit, stand and walk around the room while remaining on camera, and integrated microphones capture speakers from anywhere in the room, even if more than one person is speaking at once. Meanwhile, distracting noises such as keyboard typing and paper rustling are blocked by NoiseBlock technology.

Content sharing is also a priority for users. Polycom has enabled this by building in a tight integration with Microsoft Outlook to allow contributors to send single-touch invite prompts, while its VisualBoard technology allows users to mark up documents, drawings, or anything else shared during a call. The SmartPairing technology then allows users to connect, share and save multi-media content directly from their own personal device, with video clips, CAD animations and diagrams shared at up to 1080dp resolution at 60 frames per second.

Staying ahead of the curve

In addition to the RealPresence platform being deployed throughout the networks at the new headquarters, NATO also uses Polycom’s RealPresence Web Suite – a web collaboration tool with advanced content sharing capabilities that is designed to integrate easily with everyday workflows.

The suite lets users arrange impromptu or scheduled meetings by automatically sending invitations with meeting details including a web link. Attendees can join the meeting by clicking the link using any PC, smartphone, or a tablet with a browser and web camera.

The multi-stream system enables multiple documents to be viewed simultaneously including whiteboard, blackboard and annotation;  universal browser access allows users to host or join meetings, share content, and collaborate with other web, mobile, desktop, and room system participants.

Contracting details are still being finalised for the NATO headquarters RealPresence acquisition, but Mommers says that following its initial deployment, the system will be gradually rolled out across the rest of NATO.