DOD overpays for satellite access

The Defense Department accounts for more than half of the $500 million yearly revenue earned by commercial satellite services, but it pays a premium because its needs surge unexpectedly.

The Defense Information Systems Agency, DOD's main satellite services provider, 'overpurchases on the spot market,' said Steven J. Symonds, president of Symonds Associates LLC of Wilton, Conn.

'DOD's from Mars and satellite operators are from Venus,' Symonds quipped. He and other communications officials discussed Defense's satellite use last month at the Satellite Application Technology Conference and Expo in New York.

The government's drive to buy commercial rather than custom products and services over the last decade has made it the single largest customer for satellite bandwidth, said Robert Bell, executive director of the Society of Satellite Professionals International of New York.

Now network-centric warfare and homeland security are bringing surges in demand, Bell said, yet the industry, hard-hit by the economic downturn, cannot count on accurate forecasts of government needs.

DOD's communications and acquisition policies are 'disjointed and inflexible,' Symonds said. 'The bandwidth requirements are not stable, and DISA consistently understates them.

'In 1999, DOD projected its bandwidth needs at 16 Gbps,' he said. 'By 2002, it was 30 Gbps. By 2010, it will be four times that much.'

Commercial satellites aren't a keystone piece of the Global Information Grid, DOD's planned worldwide network, however, he said, because the Advanced Wideband System plan for military satellites will replace them around 2010.

The military's recent demand for real-time video coverage in Iraq was unanticipated and strained the industry to its limits. About 80 percent of the communications went via commercial, not military, satellites.

Tom Eaton, president of G2 Satellite Solutions Co. of El Segundo, Calif., said satellite task orders should last longer than one year. 'DOD needs an annualized capacity forecast,' he said. 'It has historically underforecast its needs.'

'If DISA had its own aggregated budget instead of buying for separate commands, and if it had a competitive process to buy in bulk, it would pay a lot less,' said Susan P. Miller, president of Intelsat Government Solutions Corp., a subsidiary of Intelsat Ltd. of Hamilton, Bermuda.

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