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LivIT Expands Employee Connectivity at Site 300
Thursday, June 1, 2017

Located 15 miles southeast of Livermore, the Laboratory’s Site 300 houses experimental facilities for nonnuclear explosives testing and research. This remote area, nestled in the rugged, grassy hills between Livermore and California’s Central Valley, is essential to the Laboratory’s programmatic missions, and for the more than 100 employees that work at the site, personnel and facility safety are paramount.

Over the last decade, information technology (IT) professionals at Lawrence Livermore have been investigating the feasibility of installing cellular towers at Site 300 to improve the employees’ connectivity and accessibility to the resources around them. Until recently, employees relied predominantly on radios for communication. However, the terrain around Site 300 can make service coverage spotty.

The plan to improve communication capabilities at Site 300 has been a decade-long effort, led by Communications Engineering Manager Clay Dawson. According to Dawson, the biggest hurdle was bridging the demands of the Laboratory with those of the vendors, AT&T and Verizon. The original plan was to provide Site 300 with multiple new cell towers, but the vendors had no business need for placing them in the area. In addition, the tower installations would have required massive infrastructure investment and were cost-prohibitive for the Laboratory. During that time, Dawson played the negotiator, working with each stakeholder to establish what services could be provided and through what mechanisms.

Fortunately, technological advances over the years offered new possibilities. The AT&T Remote Mobility Zone (ARMZ) provides cellular service to remote locations, either through a satellite uplink or a network connection. It uses a main mast and its cellular antenna to provide cellular service to wireless phones and other communication devices within a coverage area. The mast connects to the main unit, which hosts the active electronic equipment. “With the help of AT&T, we established one ARMZ site four years ago on an existing radio tower to test how well it would cover the general services area of Site 300,” says Dawson. “The tower served as a teaser; it gave the Laboratory an idea of what was possible.”

For Dawson, the ARMZ technology was game-changing to the plan for Site 300. The ARMZ demonstration showed that connectivity for employees could be significantly improved without the need for establishing whole cell sites. Seeing the technology’s potential, the Office of the Chief Information Officer, which includes the Livermore IT (LivIT) program, suggested the deployment of several ARMZ stations to further expand communication services. Although the coverage may have been slightly less than with full cellular sites, the facility could be provided with cellular services more quickly and at a reduced cost.

Figure 1. An AT&T Remote Mobility Zone (ARMZ) system, one of three at Livermore’s Site 300, uses a main mast and its cellular antenna (shown here) to provide cellular service to wireless phones and other communication devices within the coverage area.

Negotiations with AT&T on the ARMZ technology began in early 2016 and continued until September. “Once we had the approval to proceed, we were up and running at Site 300 in a little more than two months,” says Dawson. The installations required a multidisciplinary team, complete with biologists; employees from the Laboratory’s Environment, Safety, and Health Division; industrial safety personnel; engineers; heavy equipment operators; high-voltage technicians; and transportation crews. The Laboratory’s Electronics Engineering Telecommunications group installed all the cellular equipment, which included establishing antennas on existing infrastructure and a new 100-foot-tall monopole tower. Together, the ARMZ systems now provide coverage to 95 to 97 percent of the facility.

Site 300’s new cellular infrastructure supplements the existing communication services, including radio systems, and resulted in an upgrade to the cellular network from 2G to 4G. “The other great benefit to this technology is that AT&T monitors the connection 24/7. I f we have a problem, they will notify us immediately,” says Dawson. Although service is currently limited to AT&T, Verizon coverage could be added at some point in the future.

Figure 2. A new monopole was installed at Site 300 to support one of the ARMZ systems. The anchor structure, shown here, is assembled from pre-tensioned cell blocks that weigh 15,000 pounds apiece.

Dawson, who has been involved in leading telecommunications projects at the Laboratory for 28 years, is glad to have had this one co me to fruition. “The goal of this project was to improve employee safety, but the new infrastructure enhances commuter safety as well,” he says. “About 3,500 cars a day pass through the corridor near Site 300, and the upgraded cellular network provides coverage to 7 miles of highway that was previously a dead zone.”

The work at Site 300 is one part of an overarching initiative by LivIT to improve cellular service across the entire Lawrence Livermore complex, including its main site. This initiative includes adding outdoor WiFi and in-building connectivity. Such efforts will enable employees to communicate in a variety of ways from their Laboratory-approved devices, improving operational efficiency. “We are enabling employees to communicate how they want, when they want, whenever they are at work,” says Dawson. For example, Site 300 technicians working in the field will be able to update files electronically and send pictures instantaneously, all from their phones or tablets. “Ideally, at Site 300, we’d like to move toward a completely paperless system, which is more environmentally friendly and easier for records retention purposes,” says Dawson.

Whether on the main campus or at Site 300, investments in cellular service are improving communication channels for all employees. At Site 300 especially, these services provide one big dividend. “From the beginning, this project was really all about improving employee safety,” says Dawson. Mission accomplished.