Smart bases: arming the UK military with seamless Wi-Fi

9 May 2018 (Last Updated May 9th, 2018 15:14)

British Telecom (BT) is working with the UK military to ‘help staff connect quickly, understand clearly and act decisively’ through access to real-time information on military bases. Julian Turner talks to Glen Ashby, sales director at BT Defence, about providing superior connectivity to the armed forces.

Smart bases: arming the UK military with seamless Wi-Fi
Wifi has become a critical tool on bases including RAF Brize Norton where a Royal Air Force C-17 aircraft is refuelled before delivering humanitarian aid to Northern Iraq. Courtesy MoD.

Managing the flow of information in-theatre is an operational imperative for armed forces around the world as modern warfare evolves beyond the battleground into the realm of digital connectivity.

With budgets being squeezed, driving cost efficiencies by improving the flow of Wi-Fi-enabled real-time information on military bases – everything from app-based workforce management to tracking high-value items using radio frequency identification tracking – is also becoming a priority.

“Information flow is key to maintaining mission excellence and improving the operational effectiveness of today’s armed forces base,” states Glen Ashby, sales director at BT Defence.

“With the right infrastructure and Wi-Fi connectivity, the MOD can give people on their sites the flexibility to work anywhere and at any time. And once that core infrastructure is in place you can achieve even greater operational efficiencies and cost savings.

“The growing number of tablets, smartphones and laptops being rolled out across the MOD means people can work anywhere, accessing the information and services they need on the spot.

“And that’s not just corporate or military applications but also routine services such as travel booking or submitting expenses – so no more time-consuming paperwork for personnel.”

Defence Business Internet: BT’s Wi-Fi solution explained

Defence Business Internet (DBI) is a highly secure, business grade Wi-Fi solution provided by BT to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and implemented at more than 100 sites across the UK and Cyprus.

DBI gives military personnel free from the Army, Navy, joint forces command and RAF access at official security level to Defence Gateway – the MoD central URL  with access to a multitude of MoD systems – via more than five million BT Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK.

Crucially, it also gives personnel the flexibility to work beyond the confines of the military base and provides disaster recovery and business continuity options for other key MoD connectivity solutions.

“DBI provides secure, free-to-user wireless access to the internet that complies with MOD JSP 740 (acceptable use) guidelines,” explains Ashby. “In addition to free access to defencegateway.mod.uk from 5.4m BT Wi-Fi hotspots, DBI offers high-grade security, including ongoing threat management of the network that detects, contains and blocks advanced attacks automatically.

“DBI offers the latest high-quality Cisco equipment including dual band access points for improved speeds and capacity, single sign on at any connected DBI site, and ongoing pro-active installation management, so that faults are detected and fixed before the MoD realises there could be an issue.”

Ashby cites the UK’s main military air terminal at RAF Brize Norton as an example of how integrated digital connectivity can deliver improved collaboration, mobility and access to real-time information.

The BT Wi-Fi network at Brize Norton provides enough bandwidth for 6,000 uniformed staff and 132,000 servicemen and women to simultaneously communicate using almost any device, and covers the central airport terminal, permanent accommodation blocks and communal areas.

Get connected: digital managed print and defence digital signage

Providing military personnel with the correct digital tools with which to carry out their duties in the modern, hyper-connected world has become a key driver for the MoD and BT, as Ashby explains.

“Using DBI as an enabler, the MoD is able to utilise services fit for a modern working environment such as digital managed print (DMP) and defence digital signage (DDS),” he says. “DMP allows personnel to print remotely and pick up their print jobs wherever is most convenient for them.

“There is no wastage through printing to incorrect printers, as you simply use the six-digit reference you are assigned when you sent your job to print, which only allows you to release the job when you physically enter it to the local device.

“DMP devices also have document scanning and fax facilities,” he continues. “This eliminates the MoD’s current model of individual devices for separate roles, with separate service support and management contracts. Everything is centrally managed via one single DBI service desk number.”

A recent Gallup poll reveals that without the right communication, up to 74% of staff on a specific team can become disengaged.

“New recruitment and staff retention are major issues being addressed within the UK military at the moment,” says Ashby. “This stat helps support these issues by highlighting that good communication – for example, using BT’s DDS solution – can assist in this retention. DBI (Wi-Fi) also plays a major part of this retention strategy.”

DDS enables the MoD to send everything from internal site communications to emergency and crisis management information via screens in communal areas or direct to personnel using a mobile app.

“It allows the MoD to send specific detailed information to a person or group of people located in a specific area or even via their own device,” Ashby confirms. “This is especially useful to convey urgent messages and to provide an audit trail to ensure certain instructions have been read.”

Budget cuts: equipping the military in the age of austerity

The UK Government has a military spending target of 2% of GDP, in line with the rest of NATO, but Britain has been steadily spending less on defence since the early 90’s and, despite brief spikes, such as the Blair administration’s 2.7%, seems on track to continue to decline.UK Chancellor Philip Hammond’s recent Spring Statement provided little comfort for UK military chiefs, many of whom worry that Britain’s status as a credible military power is under threat. Providing reliable wireless broadband services in secure locations such as military bases has, until now, been prohibitively expensive. Ashby is confident that BT’s DDS solution could be the answer.

“We believe we can help the MoD achieve cost savings, while helping them transform [their on-site connectivity] by delivering a better connected and more cost-efficient military base,” says Ashby.

“BT can help sites become better connected, delivering a future-proofed fibre backbone, then using that backbone to provide solutions or to support existing ones, such as tannoy systems, building management, CCTV or Wi-Fi for on-the-move personal or business use. We can help the MoD drive cost efficiencies by delivering one IP network where previously there may have been several on-site, and also to better manage building facilities and reposition existing infrastructure to avoid further spending.”

BT’s defence mobile connectivity plans include the use of drones and airmasts to further improve Wi-Fi coverage and integrating DMP and DDS technologies into the UK–hosted cloud-based core.

“BT is committed to defence and has a number of investment cases ongoing to develop a digital technology roadmap in a number of areas,” says Ashby. “The market is evolving and there is a desire to utilise more solutions using commercial off the shelf products to reduce costs rather than relying on numerous bespoke designs.

“However, these will often need adapting to ensure the necessary security levels are achieved.”