DISA establishes portal for telecom satellite system

HONOLULU—The Defense Information Systems Agency has installed a dedicated ground
station here at the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station-Pacific to
act as a terrestrial gateway for Defense Department users of the $5 billion global Iridium
cellular network.

DISA bought the gateway from Iridium LLC, a consortium of international investors led
by Motorola Inc. of Schaumburg, Ill., for about $15 million to handle nearly 2,000
simultaneous DOD users.

The Iridium system includes 12 commercial gateways worldwide, in addition to the DOD
ground station in Hawaii.

Iridium is composed of a 72-satellite constellation, including spares, that will
deliver voice, data, fax and paging services to handheld wireless telephones and pagers
anywhere on Earth. Iridium’s 72 low Earth-orbiting satellites ultimately could
provide global satellite services to as many as 120,000 DOD personnel.

Commercial service for Iridium was slated to begin Sept. 23, but software glitches made
the consortium push the start-up to Nov. 1. DOD in late September declared initial
operational capability of its Iridium gateway.

“We have infrastructure in place where all DOD Iridium users have a communications
path that goes back to that single gateway in Hawaii,” said Brig. Gen. Gary
Salisbury, commander of DISA’s Joint Interoperability and Engineering Organization,
said at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronic Command’s annual AFCEA-Pacific

DOD’s unclassified service has already gone through operational tests. The
classified Iridium service is expected to start in June.

To protect the location of DOD Iridium users and provide a low probability of
communications interception, DISA is buying secure handheld phones with security chips
developed by the National Security Agency that link back to the Wahiawa gateway.

“This is the only way to protect user locations,” Salisbury said.
“That’s what is driving the idea of a single, DOD-owned gateway.”

Critics, however, are concerned that DISA does not have a backup system in place to act
as a land-based gateway in the event that the Wahiawa ground station is disabled by
accident or an act of sabotage. DISA officials agree and are working on a contingency

“This is an issue of great interest to us because we do not want to have a
situation in which we are dependent on one gateway, and, if that gateway disappears for
one reason or another, we are totally shut out of communications,” said Pravin Jain,
technical adviser and chief of DISA’s Space Liaison Office. “We absolutely
cannot accept that kind of situation.”

DISA is exploring the possibility of creating a mobile gateway—a smaller ground
station that could be set up quickly in the field—to serve as a standby system, Jain

“Even if the Wahiawa gateway were to disappear, which we don’t expect, we
probably could still use the commercial gateway but we will lose some capability,”
Jain said.

Iridium offers four types of service: universal, satellite only, city-to-city and
global paging.

DOD has signed up for the satellite-only communications service, wherein calls are
switched directly via the ground station in Hawaii to the Defense Information Systems

If DOD users were forced to tap into a commercial Iridium gateway, they would be using
an insecure communications line, Jain said.

DOD will encrypt its classified phone services. But the encrypted terminals, with NSA
chips embedded in the handsets, will not be available until summer.

Until then, DOD will rely on commercial Iridium products. A handset from Motorola and
Kyocera Corp. of Japan costs about $3,000 per unit for access in the 1,600-MHz wave band.

Iridium will cost DOD customers up to $7 per minute for outbound voice calls. But DOD
Iridium users will not have to pay for incoming calls, as is the practice with most
commercial cellular services.  

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Reader Comments

Mon, May 10, 2010 Sam DiFrancis

Folks... how is DISA going to manage access to their gateway to a NATO customer? Latency is terrible (10's of seconds) for data connections in their current commercial architecture. How can DISA and the DoD help facilitate NATO with accountable and secure access to a DISA Iridium Gateway???? I think it is overdue that NATO, DISA, and the DoD meet to formalize Ground Entry Point (GEP) requirements and determine an actionable and conclusive solution. Best Regards, SamD

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