Can you hear me now? Mesh networks could become standard at the U.S. border

by Braxton Taylor

Border patrol agents may soon rely on radio-based mesh networks to send information back and forth, thanks to a new $99 million U.S. Customs and Border Protection contract with telecoms device company goTenna.

Mesh networking devices are designed to create ad hoc wi-fi networks, simplifying the creation of connectivity where there wasn’t any before. The military and law enforcement agencies have used mesh networks to help border agents keep track of one another, in space, and to launch armed drones.

Under the contract, U.S. Border Patrol agents will get a suite of technologies needed to communicate and send data in remote areas. The agency already had a $22 million contract with goTenna to provide off-the-grid capabilities. 

Defense One talked with Ari Schuler, the CEO of goTenna, about this contract and what’s next for mesh networks.

D1: What’s the significance of this Border Patrol contract?

Schuler: When you look at CBP’s mission, they have immense responsibilities: you have northern border, southern border, coastal border. All have significant communications challenges, as you’d expect. There’s areas that don’t have cellular and never will have cellular, but that’s where the mission takes them. But you have other parts of CBP’s mission where you wouldn’t intuitively think there’s challenges with comms, like at the ports. The big stacks of containers, for example, end up blocking cellular connectivity, which then creates officer-safety issues for officers operating there. 

This contract is CBP…continuing to invest in mesh networking as a way to close their communication gaps, and we know that if you have good communications in a law enforcement mission, you’re gonna have better law enforcement outcomes, you’re gonna have safer operations and more effective operations, and we’re really excited to be supporting that mission.

D1: What data will these networks be used to share?

Schuler: There’s a piece of government software called the Team Awareness Kit. This is not only used by the U.S. military, U.S. law enforcement, but also allies around the world. And what it enables you to do is see where your team is: where the good guys are, where unknowns are, if there are people who need to be rescued. You can coordinate that. 

Every border patrol agent uses TAK. When they’re not on a cellular network—and when you’re working in the border patrol, frequently you’re operating in places without cellular—they switch over to the mesh network created by goTenna. 

What this enables is, no matter where they are in their mission, if there is another border patrol agent, they’ll know that they’re there, so that prevents blue-on-blue incidents. If there are dangers to them, [such as] armed smugglers who will rip off other drug dealers in that enforcement zone, they can flag them through TAK, they can flag them to go through goTenna, no matter how off grid they are.

D1: Is this just a single network in one location, or wherever CBP needs a mesh network along the border?

Schuler: Interestingly, a year ago under a different contract, every single border patrol agent was procured a goTenna [device]. This contract is actually a multi-year follow-on to take it beyond just the individual agents. So right now, every agent gets a cell phone, they get the TAK software, they get a goTenna [device], and that enables them to stay connected. 

This next iteration of the contract…the goals of this are to start expanding into more places. So establishing things like permanent goTenna relays in the areas that don’t have connectivity in those most austere environments. 

We’re also a big part of CBP’s training and integration through the TAK ecosystem. And so this is showing that goTenna has really matured as a small business and as a startup vendor, not just as a hardware vendor, but really providing a full set of capabilities to our government partners, whether that’s CBP, Air Force, special operations…

D1: Does the technology plug and play with other systems? It’s a big problem for DOD; I would guess Homeland Security also has this issue.

Schuler: One of the challenges with a lot of legacy radios on the market is that they’re often frequency-locked. So when you have multiple agencies coming together—that might be for hurricane response, or a counter-fentanyl operation—often the radios can’t communicate. Every goTenna can inherently communicate with any goTenna. You want to buy equipment that is high quality, but also works with each other. If there’s a joint operation, because the cost of these is comparatively low, it’s easy for agencies to bring extras and then hand them out to their partner agencies. 

From a security perspective, there’s several layers involved. You have to pick the frequencies you’re on—goTennas have to be on the same frequencies to communicate—but then there’s an encryption factor as well. So you’ve got encryption keys attached and that ensures that someone’s not listening in on your network, whether it’s an adversary or just someone who shouldn’t be playing around.

D1: Is there a continuous monitoring piece, or is that something the customer has to do?

Schuler: That’s on the customer side. They can set up their own encryption keys. We recommend they roll those encryption keys in accordance with their own policies, like most government agencies do. And then we’ve got a variety of software that makes that easy for them, because one of the biggest challenges of rolling encryption is everyone has to do it or the radios stop working. 

But the second thing that’s really interesting, and we’re seeing this used in a lot of outside-of-the-U.S. defense-use cases, is this is a very quiet radio. It is a burst-data radio, and it’s only 25 kilohertz. What that means is it’s very hard to detect if you’re up against adversaries who are looking for you. And as we start to enter more and more near-peer conflict, where our adversaries are very sophisticated, having capabilities that are quiet and still enable you to communicate the data you need, but not be found by an adversary who’s looking for you are going to become more and more critical for our defense and our allied defense systems.

D1: What other markets are you exploring?

Schuler: Right now we serve public safety, military law enforcement. One of the things I love about this capability is that it’s everything from special operators who are doing special operations missions, all the way down to local search and rescue teams who are putting in grants to buy the gear because they might have a national park in their backyard, where they lose hikers every year they have to send out search and rescue teams. And this gives them access to a very powerful capability. So we’re active in all of those markets. We also are a EAR99 [item] under export controls, which means we can be exported to allied nations. 

This contract is really exciting to us because it’s an enterprise-wide deployment, it’s full service. [CBP] is relying on us to deliver a lot of capability to them, and we’re excited for that. But what we’re really excited for is doing this for more and more missions. We want to make those operators safer.

D1: What’s next for goTenna?

Schuler: We’re working with the Air National Guard, [147th Air Support Operations Squadron] out of Texas…on increasing interoperability for disaster response. It might be a local police department and you want to get them up and on the same network as quick as possible, giving them the hardware and software to do that. Because more and more we see these law enforcement public safety operations, they’re multiagency. If it’s counter-fentanyl, you’re gonna have everything from a county-level police department all the way up to the National Guard supporting it, and everyone has to be on the same sheet of music. So we’re developing new software and hardware to support that for them. 

We’re also working with the 818th [Operations Support Squadron] out of [Fort Liberty, N.C.] on additional capabilities for near-peer environments. If you’re in a contested environment, you’re starting to take all of the goTenna’s in the network, and you’re using them to detect anomalies. Those could be benign anomalies, like a mountain that is blocking your transmission, but it could also be adversarial action, like you’re being jammed.



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