JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is helping Airmen and Guardians stay connected and mission-ready by working with private industry to upgrade installations’ cellular coverage.
Under the Long Term Evolution project, AFCEC’s Installations Directorate is granting 25-year leases for private entities to install commercial broadband networks to facilitate development, deployment and management of secure and reliable cellular communications, said Yadira Gill, AFCEC real property specialist.
Every Air Force installation within the United States is expected to have upgraded cellular coverage by 2026. The program will improve connectivity not only in homes and offices, but also along the operational flightline, said Col. Shamekia Toliver, AFCEC deputy director of installations.
“The intent is to leverage industry capabilities to provide enhanced cellular coverage for Air Force Installations nationwide,” Toliver said. “We’re ensuring lethality and readiness by improving connectivity for devices powering missions while benefiting Airmen and Guardians and their families.”
The idea of bringing 5G network coverage to Air Force installations started in 2019 as a quality of life issue where wing commanders expressed concerns with a lack of cellular coverage that private industry typically provides to local communities, Gill said. This suggestion led to an industry day where telecommunication carriers and providers met with Air Force installations and technology leaders to discuss the need for better coverage.
“The effort started expanding beyond just a quality of life issue. Our maintainers, our flightlines and our mission buildings, all of those are affected by poor coverage or no coverage,” Gill said.
The LTE project includes different phases of implementation roughly divided by geographic regions. Cellular coverage varies from location to location, said Tonda Sallee, realty specialist with the installations directorate. Phase 1, including 10 installations across six states in the southeastern United States, is scheduled to be complete by the beginning of 2023.
The installations directorate solicited bids from private companies, and an Opportunity to Lease, or OTL, was awarded to Verizon in early 2019 for Phase 1. The phase also included Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, which was left in ruins after Hurricane Michael hit in October 2018.
“It became a priority to get Tyndall up at the forefront, not just to install the infrastructure, but Verizon was thinking we could make Tyndall our first 5G capable installation,” Gill said.
When the OTL was awarded, AFCEC worked with industry partners on granting a lease for the carriers and tower companies to install the infrastructure necessary to provide cellular coverage in mission and housing areas.
“In return, for fair market value, industry will pay the Air Force for the property they’re going to use,” Sallee said. “We accepted in-kind consideration in the form of a dedicated conduit for each installation. That in-kind consideration varied among installations, of course, because the size of each installation is different. The conduit value varies based on what the Air Force is receiving.”
Phase 2 consists of 20 installations in the Midwest and Southwestern part of the United States, and Phase 2B includes seven reserve installations.
"The big takeaway from this is that our bases will be positioned and 5G-ready by the end of 2023,” said Kenneth Morgan, Air Force Reserve Command's chief information technology officer. “That means when we deploy capabilities, we can deploy those technologies universally across the command.
"AFCEC has been a great mission partner with invaluable enterprise lease development providing both unparalleled real property expertise and legal oversight of the overall LTE project. Without them, it would have been nearly impossible for a major command to accomplish similar activity," Morgan added.