FORT STEWART, Ga. (Sept. 17, 2015) -- In the wake of the recent anniversaries of Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, the Army is finalizing a new capability that will provide commercial phone and internet service to first responders when disaster strikes.

In both of these former disasters first responders were plagued by an inability to communicate when infrastructure was destroyed. Now Army and National Guard signal units can provide phone and internet services to first responders and other non-governmental agencies through the Army's Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) network when traditional commercial infrastructure is non-existent or has been damaged, destroyed or is unresponsive.

"During the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, a commercial internet and phone service capability would certainly have made things run much smoother, and response times, communications and coordination would have happened much faster," said Cpt. Stephen Carter, Network Operations (NetOps) officer in charge for the 63rd Signal Battalion (Expeditionary), 35 the Signal Brigade, (Theater Tactical), XVIII Airborne Corps. "With our new commercial services suite, first responders and various response agencies are able to tie into the network and conduct their business just as if they were in the office."

As part of the effort, the Army upgraded its WIN-T Regional Hub Nodes (RHNs) with a commercial phone and internet package, which can be used to provide commercial services along with signal units' organic WIN-T network equipment. The baseband and satellite communications capabilities of the large fixed RHNs enable regionalized reach-back to the Army's global common WIN-T tactical network, which enables mission command capabilities and secure reliable voice, video and data communications. The commercial services upgrade has been completed on four of the five worldwide RHNs, and when fully complete, will enable units to provide these commercial capabilities should a disaster or humanitarian situation occur anywhere on the planet.

In late August, the 63rd ESB; U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM); Army North (ARNORTH); and 7th Signal Command, in partnership with Project Manager (PM) WIN-T, which manages the RHNs and the WIN-T network, supported a RHN commercial services test and validation at Fort Stewart, Ga. During the test, the team successfully validated the commercial services capability at both of the U.S. based RHNs.

In the past, the challenge in providing commercial internet and phone capability to non-government personnel via the WIN-T network has always been in how to keep the military side of the network secure, said Lt. Col. Mark Henderson, product manager for WIN-T Increment 1, which manages the new commercial capability.

"Advances in technology and network security now enable us to provide these services to non-military entities while protecting the classified military network, improving communication and collaboration between organizations in defense, humanitarian and disaster response," Henderson said.

When Hurricane Katrina demolished most of the commercial infrastructure in New Orleans, the military could only provide network communications to Department of Defense (DoD) personnel who had the proper security credentials to access the military WIN-T network, said Harold LeDoux, satellite communications manager (G6), operations, for ARNORTH.

"All those first responders needed access but their systems, their commercial internet, just wouldn't work," LeDoux said. "This new capability is going to provide them direct access to commercial services so they can accomplish their job."

The RHN Commercial Phone and Internet Services capability is part of a larger communications suite being fielded by the Army. All ESBs will receive the Army Common Equipment (ACE) package, while Army National Guard signal units will receive the similar Disaster Incident Response Emergency Communications Terminal (DIRECT) package to support Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) missions. Not only do these communications suites enable commercial internet and phone accessibility, they will provide radio bridging and voice cross-banding, which enables the various first responder organizations to seamlessly communicate with each other on different radios and frequencies, solving some of the interoperability communications issues seen in Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. The new packages will also provide Wi-Fi and 4G LTE capability that would cover the incident site headquarters and outlying vicinity.

The Army's new Enroute Mission Command Capability (EMC2), which provides network communications and mission command to airborne units, will pull critical command and control services through the RHNs in the relatively near future. Preliminary testing of this new capability is scheduled for November 2015 with the capabilities expected to be available for integration in the winter of 2016. This technology will use existing RHN commercial assets initially deployed in support of Army and Army National Guard units tasked with Defense Supporting Civilian Agencies (DSCA) missions that required broadband voice and data connections for non-DoD agencies, Henderson said.

"When completed, this new capability will deliver the strategic vision of providing the WIN-T family of systems as a complete service platform from the forward edge of the battle space to inbound elite fighting units," Henderson said.

Previous to the RHN commercial services solution, the only place for the military to access these services was through the DoD Teleport system, a satellite communication gateway managed by the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Additionally, the new RHN capability enables Army and Army National Guard units to access and provide commercial services to first responders with the WIN-T satellite transport equipment they already have, versus having to be fielded and deploy with additional terminals. Using the RHNs vs Teleport is also easier for entry-level Soldiers, since they have already been trained on the WIN-T equipment and don't have to conduct complicated reconfigurations.

"So if a no-notice mission comes up, a unit out of Fort Stewart or Benning or wherever can jump on an RHN quickly and provide commercial services," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Albert Chavez, USNORTHCOM J6 (communications officer), engineering. "This will greatly expedite any response that we have."

During the RHN commercial services test event at Fort Stewart, the 63rd ESB used a variety of its organic WIN-T assets to provide satellite transport to and from the RHNs, such as the smaller easy-to-transport Secure Internet Protocol Router/Non-secure Internet Protocol Router (SIPR/NIPR) Access Point (SNAP) satellite terminal and the much larger Joint Network Node and Phoenix terminals. Having different size transport terminals enables units to efficiently provide the right amount of communications support for different response events, whether at the tactical edge of a wildfire response or at headquarters of large earthquake disaster, said Cpt. Keith Christiansen, C Company Commander, 63rd ESB.

"It is absolutely critical that we come at this capability from a scalability approach, so we are able to provide everything, from a two-man team providing support to five people, up to a massive system providing support to close to a thousand people," Christiansen said.

No one knows when the next hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack will strike, but when asked, all agreed on the importance of being prepared for it.

"Ultimately, with these new capabilities, communication will flow better and those responders on the ground will have an easier time protecting life and property," Christiansen said. "We are excited to have this mission, and hopefully we won't be used too much, but if we are called upon, we will be ready."