DOD re-ups satellite communications contract

The Defense Department has exercised the first of three one-year options for global satellite communications, extending its original two-year contract with Iridium Satellite LLC.

'We've seen a tripling in the amount of usage' since the opening of hostilities in Iraq, said Warren Brown, spokesman for the Arlington, Va., company. The satellite phones are used on Navy ships, Air Force aircraft and by infantrymen on the ground, 'all the way through the ranks.'

DOD, through the Defense Information Systems Agency, is the single largest customer of the communications company. The company acquired the assets of the bankrupt Iridium LLC in 2000 and signed a two-year, $72 million contract with DISA for unlimited usage by up to 20,000 users. The contract included three one-year options at $36 million a year.

DOD has about 15,000 users now. 'We're getting to where we think this year we will break the 20,000 user line,' Brown said. At that point, the contract will be renegotiated.

Iridium provides global coverage through a constellation of 66 satellites in polar orbit 485 miles above the Earth. Signals from handheld phones are handed off from one satellite to another until they reach the satellite servicing another Iridium user, or the ground station where it can link with terrestrial systems.

DOD purchased its own ground station in Honolulu from Iridium in 1998 and uses that facility to route its own traffic. Iridium's main ground station for commercial service is in Tempe, Ariz., with a backup station in Italy. In 2001, the National Security Agency certified a Type 1 encryption device for Iridium handsets that allows secure classified communications between encrypted Iridium handsets or with DOD Secure Telephone Unit III devices. The Iridium Security Module from Motorola Inc. fits on the company's Satellite Series 9505 phone.

Special military equipment available for the satellite phones include solar chargers and heavy-duty batteries that give up to seven hours of talk time.

'Some people are using it as their primary form of communication, and some are using it as a backup,' Brown said.

Uses range from operational activities to morale calls, he said. 'They are setting up stations in Iraq where the troops can use the phones to call home.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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