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Avaya Cranks Up High-Altitude Conferences

The Air Force turns to the Lucent spinoff for voice-over-IP communications in the fieldBASKING RIDGE

Issuing orders to fighter jets may get a bit easier thanks to testing the Air Force will begin tests this week using Avaya’s voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.

This is the latest step in a program to explore the feasibility of using available VoIP technology for military communications in the field. “The Air Force realizes that to save money they want to use commercial off-the-shelf technology,” says Avaya client executive Vic Galante.

Avaya, a communications networking firm in Basking Ridge, is helping the military realize the possibility of fluid voice conferencing between pilots and their commanders without having to alternate using the radio channel.

The Air Force previously tested the technology in a conference call to an F-15E fighter jet on Feb. 8. Now, airborne VoIP networking is being tested again at the 2006 Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment (JEFX) at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The goal is to combine Web-based voice communications with intelligence and reconnaissance images.

“It’s a data channel as well…so in addition to voice we can also transmit video and other forms of communication,” says Brian Hillis, solutions architect for Avaya. The next rounds of testing will include an F/A-18, the Navy’s premier jet fighter, and other aircraft.

VoIP communication allows all parties to converse in a natural fashion rather than the stop-and-start manner of two-way radios. Only one person can speak over a radio channel at a time.

“With IP, you have an open channel over a wireless radio network sending voice and or data packets,” says Galante.

Radio communications also are usually limited to two-party conversations. Using a VoIP-based conference would allow a flight crew on a critical mission to talk with their headquarters in the field and to an intelligence team at the Pentagon at the same time.

The tests use Avaya’s S8500 Media Server and Communication Manager IP-telephony software to establish the link. Avaya also provided 75 IP-based telephones and 2,000 licenses for soft phones—computers at the command center set up to function as a telephone. The pilot’s voice is relayed from his headset through a Windows-based auxiliary computer in the cockpit.

The wireless network is provided by Rockwell Collins, a designer of communication and aviation electronics in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Humvees on the ground with antennas relay the signal over land, back to ground-based contacts. Aircraft can also relay communications among themselves. Data on the network is scrambled to prevent wireless eavesdroppers from listening in. “We actually encrypt the voice packets themselves,” says Galante.

Executives and technicians from Avaya will huddle at JEFX with military brass to find out how well the network holds up between fast-moving jets and their land-based command posts. Prior tests linked the weapon systems officer of an F-15E fighter jet to the Naval Air Weapons Center in China Lake, Calif. and to an Air Force general at his desk in the Pentagon.

That test successfully carried a 20-minute conference call using the VoIP connection. The F-15E crew was also able to communicate with an airborne E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft provided by the Navy.

The various branches of the military converge biannually for JEFX to test a host of technologies for use in the field. The Air Force chose Avaya to be part of its JEFX program starting in 2004.

“They previously used a Cisco product and I guess they weren’t really thrilled with it so they came over to Avaya,” says Galante.

Avaya makes much of its money switching business users from traditional phone connections to VoIP service. For its fiscal first quarter ended Dec. 31, 2005, the company reported net income of $71 million on revenue of $1.25 billion. That compares with net income of $31 million on revenue of $1.15 billion in the prior year. Avaya attributed its growth in part to its acquisition of Tenovis in Frankfurt, Germany, and the additional revenue it generates.

The government’s requirements for VoIP include having the ability for officials to squash and override nonessential calls on the line in an emergency. The government also wants the system to allow active conference calls to be quickly expanded to include additional participants.

The equipment and software licenses for the experiment cost a total of $250,000. “They are looking during the experiments to see if there is any technology the vendor community has that they can inject into the center to make it run smoothly,” says Galante.

The use of VoIP means commanders could conceivably call flight crews operating anywhere in the world and speak with them directly. The Air Force manages its operations in the field through a Combined Air Operations Center, which develops the air-war plan and issues orders to flight crews.

If this and tests planned for April go well, Avaya might see its VoIP service deployed in military hot spots around the globe. “The hope would be if something is very successful and shows a lot of promise, they would incorporate that into the command center in Iraq as soon as possible,” Galante says.

Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment (JEFX) 2006

Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada

The sixth in a series of biannual exercises to evaluate technologies for controlling and coordinating air combat is taking place this week. The Air Force administers the experiments to test new concepts for use by all branches of service. Participants include other branches of the U.S. armed forces and international allied forces.

The 2004 JEFX evaluated some 15 technologies for possible use in the field. That exercise was budgeted at $53 million. The Air Force typically selects about 40% of the concepts and technologies from the tests to be advanced for further development.

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