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The increase in wireless device users and data heralded by 5G could pose challenges for COMINT practitioners fortunately, the community is tackling this issue with alacrity.

The advent of fifth-generation cellular communications could pose challenges for communications intelligence professionals.

The global proliferation of wireless devices and smartphones, and the demand for more bandwidth for those devices, are two of the drivers that have influenced the developments of fifth generation (5G) wireless communications. A May 2019 report published by businesswire.com predicted that the global smartphone market will grow by 6.1 percent between 2019 and 2025. Similarly, the IDC market intelligence company predicted in December 2018 that the collective sum of the world’s data will increase from 33 zettabytes/ZB (33 trillion gigabytes/GB) in 2019 to 175ZB (175 trillion GB) in 2025.

What is 5G? Broadly speaking, 5G is a catch-all term for communications protocols which will handle this growth in wireless device use and data traffic. Wireless communications currently occupy several segments of the spectrum between 380 megahertz/MHz up to 1.9 gigahertz/GHz. To avoid saturation of the ultra high frequency waveband 5G will move wireless communications into higher frequencies of 26GHz, 28GHz, 38GHz and 60GHz. Low-band 5G will use frequencies of 600MHz up to six gigahertz, notably in the 3.5GHz to 4.2GHz waveband. Frequencies of 30GHz and above will allow download speeds of up to 20 gigabits-per-second. Moving wireless communications to higher bandwidths will enable cellphones, tablets and other wireless devices to use smaller antennas. This will have the corresponding effect of allowing each antenna on a device to use a particular part of waveband. Therefore if one part of the phone’s waveband is not working efficiently due to congestion or interference then another part can be utilised by another antenna to avoid this. Similarly if all parts of the phone’s allotted wavebands are working efficiently the phone can combine transmissions across these antennas to provide high speed traffic.

So far, so good; all of this sounds great for the consumer, but what will be the implications for Communications Intelligence (COMINT)? Kevin Davis, vice president of product and channel management at TCI, a company specialising in SIGINT equipment based in Fremont, California, told Armada Analysis that one of the major challenges with 5G is that it uses very narrow transmission beam widths. What this means in practice is that these transmissions will be directional (pointing in a straight line), rather than omni directional (covering a 360 degree radius) potentially making them very difficult to detect amidst the prevailing electromagnetic noise, particularly in urban areas. Thus “5G could complicate trying to locate and monitor a specific actor in an urban environment when they could be using a directional very or ultra high frequency radio or cellphone.” He adds that “a 5G transmission could have lower power and hence get lost in the wider local electromagnetic spectrum.” The implications of this is that the COMINT practitioner will need to get closer to their target to collect their intelligence, something which can be risky in covert counter-insurgency or special forces operations.

Mr. Davis and his colleagues have not been idle in tackling these challenges. When things need to be covert, go small, he believes: “We are looking at lower SWAP (Size, Weight and Power) COMINT systems. These will be more useful and covert for mobile applications.” While this takes care of discretion, the company plans to increase the waveband that its COMINT systems handle up to 40GHz. This will allow them to take in some of the frequencies 5G will be using. The company will be launching a new 5G-compatible manpack COMINT system at the Association of Old Crows convention and conference in Washington DC in late October.

The good news is that the COMINT community is taking the 5G challenge seriously, says Mr. Davis: “We started engaging our US customers in conversations about 5G and the need for extended frequencies around 18 months ago. The US is doing a very good job at thinking about that. European customers are similarly engaged in those types of concerns.”

by Dr. Thomas Withington