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11 6 2019

Connecting the Dots: The High North

Communicating in the High North is a challenge. In the Alliance's most northern waters, Satellite Communications (SATCOM) cannot always ensure proper support for communications. Very few systems are usable in high latitudes, and doing so leads to problems with latency and reduced throughput.

Enter the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency. To tackle this problem with naval communications, its Network Services and IT Infrastructure Service Line released a business opportunity for bidding, and is now evaluating the solutions industry proposed.

The Agency expects to award the contract in the first quarter of 2020. The business opportunity, part of the Broadcast and Ship-Shore IP Enhanced System (BRIPES) project, will be a critical step toward implementing another option for ship-to-shore communications.

This solution would be particularly helpful for operations in the Arctic.

Today, Nations provide services that allow ships and stations on-shore to send text-based messages to each other. BRIPES would allow ships to begin using Internet Protocol-based services, namely formal messaging with attachments, like e-mail and chat.

BRIPES will enable ships to use IP-based services, which aren't currently widely-used in naval communications. IP was not compatible with the low throughput system ships use today, because IP messages require long headers that leave little room for a message with substance.

Procuring the software needed to achieve BRIPES has become a reality as technology has matured, said Alex Bertin, the NCI Agency's Wireless and Maritime Service Area Owner.

"Most of the features we are going to use in the project existed a couple of years ago, but were not automated," Bertin said.

Automation is important, as many ships may not have the technical staff to support complex troubleshooting, Bertin said. They need to be able to send messages just like they would on their personal computers – "click and forget" as one vendor called it, Bertin said.

"We need to build systems that are very user-friendly, because people on the ship have many, many hats now," Bertin said. "They have to cope with really different systems, and they cannot be experts in all of the systems on board."

Connecting the Dots: The High North

With automation, the new system will be able to sense and probe the spectrum, and adapt to successfully send the message.

"If the conditions are getting degraded, the system by itself will go to a more robust waveform," Bertin said.

An additional future procurement will bring a wideband high-frequency capability to the system, which will further increase the throughput.

As NATO's technical leader, the Agency is uniquely equipped to begin to address this maritime communications problem, Bertin said.

The Agency can keep an eye on emerging technology in the communications arena, and offer unbiased perspective on its maturity.

"We are ensuring that the systems are at sufficient maturity, are interoperable and are reliable," Bertin said. "And the advantage for the Nations is to end up with an interoperable system, and a system that will be usable in the NATO environment."

The BRIPES project, a common-funded effort, will impact every NATO Nation, Bertin said. Even Nations who choose not to use IP-services will need to ensure their system is compatible.

This effort is not about replacing satellite communications. The goal is to use narrowband, then wideband high-frequency communications as a reliable backup.

Not only can such a system provide increased throughput for the Arctic, but it is also more difficult to jam, making it an excellent complement to satellite communications around the globe.

"You could try to jam satellite communications by sending a jammer in the direction of the satellite, making the satellite unable to transmit," Bertin said. "In high frequency you have really a network of different shore stations, with of course different locations. Jamming a single station is already challenging, but when it comes to a meshed system it is very, very complex."

About the Network Services and IT Infrastructure Service Line: The NSII mission enables secure and resilient data, voice and video communication services worldwide. It supports deployed operations and exercises for NATO Joint Forces, and political consultations between NATO Headquarters and Nations. The NSII Service Line is one of the largest units in the NCI Agency by personnel (more than 300 employees), portfolio (300 million EUR a year) and geographical footprint (17 locations).

Interested in working for the NSII Service Line? Explore our vacancies.