Every Day's Boxing Day With Cisco's TCK

Cisco's 70-pound Tactical Communications Kit provides an emergency network in a box, complete with satellite communications and VoIP services.

By Drew Robb | Posted Jan 8, 2009
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In British Commonwealth countries, December 26th is known as Boxing Day, a celebration dating to the originating in the Middle Ages, when it is traditional to give gifts to the less fortunate. On Boxing Day 2004, Brian Steckler found that a non-traditional box came in handy. Steckler, Director of the Hastily Formed Networks (HFN) Research Group at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California, was in Thailand that day, working with the Royal Thai Armed Forces.

“I just happened to be out there working with them on surveillance and targeting when the Tsunami hit,” he said. “I ran out to the coastline to see how I could help.”

With him he took a Cisco Tactical Communications Kit (TCK). He set up the TCK at a Buddhist temple that was being used as a morgue and grave registration center, establishing a wireless cloud. He then ran a WiMAX link seven kilometers to the nation’s largest refugee camp and set up a Wi-Fi mesh covering the camp. The wireless networks were connected to a satellite uplink allowing the disaster relief personnel to communicate with the outside world.

“These technologies are off the shelf, they are not hard to use, but they can really empower people to ease the pain and suffering of the victims of disasters,” said Steckler. “The TCK is a key product for doing that.”

Creating the TCK

The TCK was developed by Cisco in conjunction with CACI International, a federal IT services contractor headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, as a means of providing instant data and voice connectivity anywhere in the world.

“While responding to natural and manmade disasters over the years, we have found that it was taking too long to establish communications among rescue crews,” said Bob Browning, Cisco’s Senior Manager, Tactical Operation’s Support. “Cisco decided to develop a Tactical Communications Kit that alleviates this problem and allows crews to establish voice and data communications within 20 minutes of arriving at the scene.”

The networking and satellite equipment already existed. The challenge was how to get the equipment into a package so it could be easily transported, set up and operated anywhere in the world, especially when normal transportation systems and power grids are off line. Cisco and CACI’s solution was to design a kit that could fit into a single shipping case and light enough to be carried by hand. Within that case are a Cisco 2811 ISR router with a 16 port Power over Ethernet (PoE) switch module, a wireless access point card, and an E&M card (Ear and Mouth - a VoIP technology that uses a conventional earpiece to receive incoming voice and a microphone to transmit outgoing voice) for land mobile radio integration. It also includes two Cisco 7960 wired IP phones, four 7920 wireless IP phones and Cisco Call Manager Express IP Telephony software. The base of the case contains the route and fans to provide airflow, and the phones fit in the top of the case for easy removal. The box weighs about 70 lbs and can be checked as luggage, but Steckler prefers to split the system into smaller units for easier transport.

When the electrical grid is up or a generator is handy, the kit can work off of either 110V 60Hz or 220 50Hz AC. If not, it can run off a 12 or 24 volt battery.

“The TCK was designed to be extremely versatile with regards to power sources,” says Browning. “We recently powered the kit off of a small form factor hydrogen fuel cell with great results.”

EMT Phone Home

Steckler has been using the TCKs for four years now since his first experience in Thailand. They connect via satellite link to the Internet, and then to his lab at the NPS in Monterey. There the calls or data connections tie into the campus PBX and back out into the world.

“I can be in a remote village in the Philippines and make phone calls anywhere in the world just like I was sitting at my desk,” he said.

For the most part they are used for routine communications in the filed or for training his students at the NPS. But they also came in handy when Katrina hit. He and some of his students went to Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and established communications for the municipal governments, first responders and even set up an Internet cafe for the general public. The TCK established the first node and satellite uplink, then additional meshed wireless points were set up to cover both towns.

“I had NPS students doing their masters thesis work at the same time we were enabling the public, the victims, the NGOs, the early responder community and the military,” he said.

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