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Video in the War Zone: The Current State of Military Streaming

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Are the streaming needs of the military any different from those of the average enterprise, or even the average Netflix viewer?

That salient question launched an operation to understand the state of streaming for military deployments in various parts of the globe.

What we learned, based on interviews with various vendors that constitute supply-side streaming to various government agencies in the United States and its allies, was this: Military streaming might have several unique requirements, but at their core, these requirements— and the problems they solve—are also applicable to civilian life, from enterprise to lean-back viewing.

This article summarizes our understanding of the current state of military streaming but does not provide specific operational details. In fact, while we spoke to vendors from mobile, encoding, transcoding, and distribution companies, no one was willing to go on the record.

It’s an understandable conundrum, as companies neither want to risk giving away operational details nor risk impacting a profitable bottom line. “Tens of thousands of deployments,” says one vendor representative, “and not a single press release.”

We’ve split the findings in to several categories drawn from the challenges posited by our interview participants, while avoiding three-letter acronyms (TLA) when possible.

One Engagement, Multiple Streams

The primary challenge, according to various sources, was the need to provide multiple streams on a very wide spectrum of connectivity.

In any given engagement, the number of live video streams might range from five to 50 or more, and the streams could come from a ground-based forward reconnaissance team, or from a moving vehicle on the ground or in the air. Aerial feeds can be either from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or from manned aircraft.

The concept of “need-to-know” factors heavily into the way diverse streams are distributed.

For instance, field operations could require the same signal to be sent to multiple soldiers, from a small squadron to a much larger battalion, even if the troops are on limited connectivity or are strung out across an advancing line over the course of many miles.

At the command level, on-the-ground live feeds are available, in addition to feeds from support aircraft. There might also be interdepartmental feeds, image-only feeds from a satellite or reconnaissance vehicle, or feeds from other government agencies.

With this need for multiple streams come several challenges, broken down into technology, operational, and security challenges.

Technology Challenges

Soldiers on the ground—dismounted or mounted, as militaries often refer to those on foot or in a vehicle, respectively—might be equipped with tactical equipment to upload live or prerecorded content, some of which might be traditional, satellite-based uplink from a portable satellite dish. The soldiers might also have a personal mobile phone that can send or receive live video. And that personal video equipment just might be more technologically advanced than the standard-issue gear.

The potential use of mobile video has been an area of interest for the Department of Defense since at least 2011, when it began “actively exploring how to securely leverage 4G commercial systems, technologies, innovations and applications more effectively in its missions,” according to a blog post on engineering website EECatalog.

While the concept of using mobile devices on commercial networks for military purposes has been assessed for a number of years, interest in the concept took a giant leap forward in September 2014, when a division of the U.S. Army Communications Electronics Research and Engineering Center, known as the Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate, put out a request for information (RFI) to various cellular network equipment manufacturers.

The intent of the RFI, according to a General Services Administration solicitation, is to adapt “commercial cellular/wireless technology to provide soldiers at the tactical edge with extended secure wireless communications across the battlefield.”

The Army sees this as a way to enhance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

“An example is providing secure, high-throughput data communication to dismounted soldiers across a complex multi-path environment,” the solicitation reads. “Metrics for success include: delivering high-throughput data access to the individual soldier, improving solider situational awareness, and increasing soldier mobility via highly mobile mesh topology.”

In other words, how best to use commercial media delivery technology to deliver critical media across the engagement theater? The mesh topology portion of the RFI is interesting, as the assumption might be that military engagements overseas would be used to create temporary mesh networks spanning large portions of the battlefield where no compatible cellular technologies exist. The domestic implications, however, of using commercial cellular networks in the U.S. for military engagements are less than appealing.

Operational Challenges

Various interviewees stressed that the need to broadcast video feeds to multiple locations, across various data network topologies, without sacrificing signal quality is a significant operational challenge.

Sounds like a fairly standard streaming problem, right? Not exactly.

In what they termed the “lowest common denominator” problem, interviewees said a major challenge faced by today’s militaries is the need to sometimes use a stream of the lowest quality, in order to provide real-time operational video feeds to the least-connected troops. The use of lowest-quality delivery potentially sacrifices visibility and stream quality for those who have better connectivity, which could potentially impact overall operational success.

Off-the-shelf solutions could potentially solve the problem and have been tested by a number of elite or special operations forces, but they’re not yet adopted across traditional military regiments or larger corps.

In the meantime, many militaries are using a multiple stream approach to avoid this issue. In a multiple stream approach, the same stream might be sent multiple times, each at a different data rate, to guarantee delivery to those in the field.

In doing so, content management issues increase both in command and control centers and in the operational theater. Analysts, for instance, require very high-resolution streams plus ultra-high-resolution still images. Yet these images and streams would overwhelm the average soldier on the ground. Troops on the move might switch between networks, or might use legacy gear such as K-band flypacks to uplink video.

In other words, real-time multi-bitrate streaming, at least in real-time deployments, faces several challenges.

The first issue is latency. While it might be technically feasible to use adaptive bitrate (ABR) technologies to deliver on-demand content, for analysis and non-real-time decision making, the use of industry standard ABR technologies would add significant—and potentially unacceptable—latencies to in-theater situational awareness.

In order to shave latency, including during times in which content is being acquired and fed to command via satellite uplinks, interviewees noted that the military relies on legacy technologies, sometimes including analog (such as RF-based modulators) rather than digital delivery, and even proprietary or specialized codecs. Content management issues aside, the use of legacy technologies, multiple discrete streams, and video feeds has worked well for decades. Until there’s a better way, the status quo continues to dominate wartime theater and situational awareness strategies.

The second challenge, perhaps even more vexing than retaining the ultra-low-latency delivery times relied upon by command or headquarters analysts, is the need to properly deliver metadata to the solider in the field.

An example of this might be a forward reconnaissance team’s need to call in remote support to act as “eyes and ears” in desolate locations. While this might be the stuff that movies are made of—such as the situation faced by a team in Lone Survivor, deployed out of range of even satellite phone communications—even soldiers in slightly more populated environments rely on the metadata to be an accurate guide.

One interviewee mentioned that soldiers in both the U.S. Army and Allied Forces might be subject to such thin data connections that they only receive a single image every few seconds.

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