DOD re-ups satellite comm contract

Master Sgt. Bart Decker, an Air Force aircraft controller, carries an Iridium phone as he travels with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

The new Motorola Series 505 handset is lighter and more reliable than the original Iridium handset, nicknamed 'the brick.'

The Defense Department has exercised the first one-year option of its Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services contract, which supplies secure global communications 'across the entire spectrum of the deployed military,' said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Augustine J. Ponturiero of the Defense Information Systems Agency.

'Specific use is left up to the unit commander, and our feedback is that it is for tactical, operational, logistics and administrative needs, as well as for morale calls home,' said Ponturiero, the chief of operations for DISA's Principal Directorate for Network Services.
He said he cannot talk about specific uses of the satellite phone service in the Iraq war 'for obvious reasons,' but use has spiked since the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq. 'From September 2001 to February 2003, we had a 3,300 percent increase in system traffic,' Ponturiero said.

Warren Brown, a spokesman for EMSS contractor Iridium Satellite LLC of Arlington, Va., said, 'We've seen a tripling in the amount of usage,' since the war started.

DISA is the single largest customer of the reconstituted Iridium, which in 2000 acquired the assets of the bankrupt Iridium LLC, including a $6 billion constellation of satellites. The original company faltered under a burden of debt, poor service quality, bulky equipment, high prices and competition from cellular service.

By getting Iridium at a bargain price with no debt, the new company can survive while serving niche markets such as the military and the fishing, oil and construction industries.

Iridium signed a two-year, $72 million contract with DISA in December 2000 for unlimited use by up to 20,000 callers. The contract included three one-year options at $36 million a year. EMSS supplies paging and data transmission as well as standard voice service.

There are about 15,000 DOD users now. 'We think this year we will break the 20,000 line,' Brown said. At that point the contract will be renegotiated.

Iridium provides global coverage through 66 satellites in polar orbit 485 miles above the Earth. Signals from handheld phones pass from one satellite to another until they reach the satellite serving the Iridium user being called or a ground station that connects the signals to terrestrial networks.

Iridium's main ground station for commercial service is in Tempe, Ariz., with a backup station in Italy. DOD bought its own ground station in Honolulu in 1998 and routes its own traffic. Ponturiero said call completion rates are better than 97 percent.

Better handset

One reason for the good performance is a new Motorola Series 505 handset, larger than a typical cell phone and with a bulky antenna. But it's lighter and more reliable than the original Iridium handset, nicknamed 'the brick.'

In 2001, the National Security Agency certified a Type 1 encryption module for the handset to secure classified communication with another satellite handset or with a DOD Secure Telephone Unit III device.

The handset sells for $1,465 on the EMSS contract with standard accessories such as a high-capacity battery, auto adapter, charger, antenna adapter and auxiliary antenna. An encryption module sells for $2,270, a Series 9501 pager for $289. Optional military equipment includes solar chargers and heavy-duty batteries for up to seven hours of talk time.

The satellite phones are useful for both primary and backup communications, Ponturiero said, but 'it depends on the mission and the unit. In some locations, EMSS is the only beyond-line-of-sight communication available. Many DOD organizations also maintain EMSS handsets for emergency backup.'

Although he would not discuss Iraq, he said, 'We have heard from some deployed units in Afghanistan that the phones have been extremely reliable for a variety of missions and communications requirements. The scientific community provided some excellent feedback on the system in Antarctica, and it's also used to provide access to remote sensor data on the polar ice.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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