DOD to begin Iridium tests

The Defense Department plans to start operation of its gateway to the Iridium LLC mobile satellite system this week, despite glitches that will delay full commercial service until November.

Although DOD will not be able to field its full order of 2,500 satellite handsets, the agency will start service with 150 units, making it possible to begin initial tests of the Iridium system, which provides a constellation of 79 satellites to enable users to place and receive calls anywhere on Earth.

"We're going operational on Sept. 23 as planned," said Army Col. Bob Weber, program manager for the Defense Information Systems Network at the Defense Information Systems Agency, which owns and operates an Iridium gateway in Hawaii. Iridium's 14 commercial gateways are owned by telephone companies, such as Singapore Telecom.

The Navy has ordered 1,000 handsets for its own use through a separate contract.

Earlier this month Iridium said it had moved the launch date for commercial service from Sept. 23 to Nov. 1 due to a delay in deployment of the final version of software that controlled the satellite constellation. This software controls, among other things, handoffs of telephone calls between the 79 satellites and the 12 gateways as well as billing and authentication. Iridium, in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission last month, said it believed the development of this software was "one of the largest and most complex software creation and integration tasks ever undertaken in a commercial satellite program." The late delivery of the final version of the satellite constellation software, according to the Iridium SEC filing, in turn delayed delivery of the high-tech handsets.

DOD expects Iridium to reduce dramatically the rates DOD pays to make satellite calls because of the competition in the mobile satellite system phone market.

DISA has not finalized pricing with Iridium, but "our goal is to have one of the most favorable rates," Weber said. "By owning our gateway, we have a good opportunity to get lower rates."

The cost of an Iridium phone call will depend on the location of the caller and the end point of the call, with prices being higher to and from less developed areas of the world. Weber estimated that DOD users will pay "from $2.50 to upwards of $7 a minute" for an Iridium phone call. Unlike cellular phone service, Iridium users will not pay for incoming calls.

Col. Mike Harvey, commander of DISA-Pacific (DISA-PAC), interviewed at his headquarters at Wheeler Army Airfield on Oahu, said the higher price reflects Iridium's unique capabilities. Iridium will provide DOD users with "global access" through a commercial handset that is not much heavier that a standard cell phone, rather than "luggable" systems. Users should focus on capability and not costs, Harvey added.

Air Force Lt. Col. Jack Murphy, chief of the DISA-PAC Program Division, said by owning its own gateway to Iridium, DOD can add security to the system by directing all calls made anywhere in the world by DOD users to the DISA-PAC gateway located in a secure compartment facility in Wahiawa, Oahu.

"A chip in the handset registers the DOD user with our gateway," Murphy said. Next June, Murphy said the gateway -- built by Motorola Corp., which conceived the Iridium system and owns 18 percent of it -- will offer military users "end-to-end encryption" through security chips developed by the National Security Agency that also are embedded in the handsets.

The DOD gateway was designed to accommodate a lot of traffic, according to Roy Kikuta, chief of the DISA-PAC switched services branch. The gateways can handle up to 1,920 simultaneous telephone calls, with the signals from the three antennas that feed the gateway routed to two T-1 lines that hook into DOD's Hawaii wide-area network. From there, the data either enters DISN or the public switched network. Kikuta called it "unlikely" that the DOD gateway will ever have to accommodate as many as 1,900 users at one time.

Eventually some of that capacity could be farmed out to non-DOD federal agencies. Weber said all federal agencies can buy service off the Iridium contract, but for the moment his mandate is to meet the needs and requirements of DOD users.

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