Marc LeGare | A link to hostile environments

GCN Inteview with the chief executive officer at Proactive Communications

Marc LeGare, chief executive officer at Proactive
Communications, learned tactical communications from practical
experience during 20 years in the infantry. As a battalion
commander he fielded the Army's first digitized, mechanized
infantry battalion before leaving the Army in 2001. He joined PCI
as chief operating officer and operations manager in 2003 after a
stint with TRW/Northrop Grumman. During his tenure as CEO, PCI has
drawn lessons from providing satellite communications for U.S.
military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and in the Gulf Coast after
Hurricane Katrina.

GCN: Does PCI own its own satellite fleet and ground
Marc LeGare:
No. Our chief partner is Loral Skynet, which owns the Telstar fleet, and we lease bandwidth on
satellites that provide footprints around the world. On the ground
network, we co-locate with various teleports around the world and
use other people's antennas, but we provide our own
communications hub chassis.

GCN: A lot of what you are
offering is commodities ' what technology and services are
you providing that add value?
What we do is
take the bandwidth off the satellite, the managed services and the
equipment and tie it together with personnel on the ground to
provide a turnkey solution in austere and hostile environments. The
customer can look to us to provide Internet access for all of their
data devices, voice over IP, either secure or nonsecure.

GCN: What do you mean by austere
and hostile environments, and what are their
As a former infantryman, the
word hostile means that there is a threat to life, limb or
property. Most of our customers are U.S. government, and that term
hostile is pretty narrowly defined that way. What we found in Iraq
is that there are many companies that would prefer to remain in the
States and subcontract the business out. That distance between the
prime in the United States and the subcontractor in Iraq created a
lot of problems for the paying customer. We are a prime contractor
with personnel on the ground.

GCN: What services are you
providing in Iraq and Afghanistan?
In both
Iraq and Afghanistan we provide secure and unsecure voice-over-IP
telephone services, Internet access, private networks and network
operations center management. A reconstruction company that is
rebuilding a power generation facility, hospitals, water
purification plants, might have a need to coordinate resources
across different project areas. In an environment such as Iraq,
where there is little to no landline telephone services, satellite
becomes the most expeditious means to establish solid
communications. As infrastructure in Iraq matures over time, there
probably will be less requirement for satellite communications. But
right now there is still good demand for satellite because it is
easy to set up, easy to monitor and can hold a reliable link
through some pretty demanding weather.

GCN: What are the limitations of
satellite communications as long-term or permanent
The first challenge is the
monthly recurring charge for bandwidth. You are consuming a limited
commodity off the satellite, and in terms of total cost of
ownership, maintaining a satellite telecommunications link over a
long period of time can be expensive. The issue that we see in Iraq
is that if there was fiber there to begin with, it was old and
outdated. And enemy forces will target communications that are
readily visible, such as trucks laying fiber. And there are many
accounts of insurgents blowing up microwave towers. So in the short
haul, satellite communications can be brought in easily. The other
downside is that the original network setup might not be able to
scale to increased data requirements, so you either have to bring
in another link or create a new policy or procedure to distribute
that bandwidth as requirements increase.

GCN: Who were you working for on
the Gulf Coast after Katrina, and what did you do
One of our commercial customers in
Iraq was a major reconstruction company, and in September of 2005,
we got a call asking, [since] we could provide satellite
communications in Iraq with bombs and bullets, could we provide the
same service in Louisiana? And in a matter of five days, we were
able to pull together a four-man team and build a network that
supported 38 mobile nodes as they went out to do damage

GCN: What are the similarities
and differences between a battle theater and a disaster
One of the differences was that we
did not have the physical security requirements of Iraq. Nobody was
shooting at us, we didn't have an enemy to prepare against,
so the stress level was a lot less. One of the similarities is that
the network operations center has got to have complete visibility
over the network and be prepared to contact the customer if we see
problems about to occur so that they can fix the problem
themselves. Training the customer was a key. If you train them on
how to use the equipment and do some skill-level 1 troubleshooting,
you can save hours on the road trying to find them and getting the
circuit resurrected.

GCN: What lessons did you bring
away from Katrina?
There are four lessons
that we walked away with. First, whatever the task is, we need to
build flexibility for the task to expand. Customers often
underestimate their requirements in terms of how quickly they want
it and the types of devices they want on their network. Secondly,
you need to have a team ready to deploy and provide on-site
training and troubleshooting. The customers are going to rotate so
frequently that you have to be prepared to leave behind training
resources. The third, which we learned in Iraq and was
substantiated in Louisiana, [is that] you've got to take your
own power. We took our own generators and fuel to New Orleans and
were able to provide power to our own tools to do the
installations. And your requirements will migrate over time from
communications on the [fly] to fixed comms, as your customer
migrates from disaster response to recovery to restoration. And
that requires tailoring of the networks. We went from 38
on-the-halt nodes, and we finished nine months later with three
fixed sites with larger circuits.

GCN: How should agencies prepare
for disaster response?
One of the things we
observed in our Katrina support was that agencies need to have a
communications requirement plan. Who are the agencies that
communications need to be established with? Another thing to
remember is that even if the communications infrastructure is only
marginally degraded, with the influx of people and organizations,
that degraded infrastructure can rapidly become overloaded. For
instance, some cell phone sites remained operational in New
Orleans; we couldn't dial in, but our people could dial out.
So you have to have techniques to leverage what is in place. To
reach some of our remote clients with cell phones, instead of
calling we would send a text message, which almost always got
through where a voice call wouldn't.

GCN: How well-prepared for
disaster are most organizations?
experiences are limited to the Katrina relief effort, but the
breadth and depth of the disaster overwhelmed whatever plans were
in place. So communications vendors operating in that environment
need to have a turnkey mentality. There isn't going to be a
lot of integration at the point of disaster. Shipping, power,
skilled labor are not going to be available, and there will be
competing agencies all with the same requirements, so you need to
have those commodities in your own stable as you deploy.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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