DISA selects Motorola for satellite comm

The Defense Information Systems Agency has awarded Motorola Inc. a $219 million contract to supply satellite communications products and services throughout the Defense Department.

Under the three-year contract, Motorola will provide mobile phones, pagers and other communications services operating with the Iridium LLC mobile satellite system, which is based on a commercial network of low-orbiting satellites.

The low-orbiting satellites will allow DOD to place calls using portable cellular telephones, rather than the larger and more expensive "luggable" units required with existing DOD-dedicated satellite systems.

"The contract will allow users to buy all Iridium products, to include secure handsets when they are available," according to a DISA spokeswoman.

DOD traffic will be routed through a special Defense communications gateway in Hawaii, which will connect Iridium-based calls and pages to DOD's existing communications network, called the Defense Information Systems Network.

John Weidman, vice president and general manager for Motorola Worldwide Information Network Services, said the contract should give DOD workers greater mobility because Iridium-based phones and pagers do not require land-based towers or dishes to relay messages.

Instead, the devices bounce their messages off a constellation of satellites. The technique should augment communications at sea or near the Earth's poles, where communications towers are scarce or nonexistent, Weidman said. "It gives DOD global communications [in] a cost-effective way, and it allows them to - I'll say augment, not replace - DOD's dedicated satellites," he said.

The Iridium telephone handsets currently available are not built with the high-level security abilities that DOD needs for sensitive communications, but Weidman said more secure handsets should become available by the end of the year. Likewise, Motorola and DOD are working to make the Hawaii gateway secure.

Still, Weidman said the phones offered under the contract could be used for administrative, planning and other routine communications.

Weidman said the contract covers 28 million air-time minutes annually. A minute of air time on Iridium can cost $2 to $8, but the average air-time cost is $4 to $5, Weidman said. Iridium handsets sold to commercial clients cost close to $3,000, Weidman said. He was unable to provide a figure for what DOD will pay for handsets.

DOD customers also should be able to use the Iridium contract for more than voice and paging purposes later in the year. Weidman said Iridium partners are working to develop products and services for sharing data over the Iridium constellation. "As new products become available, they will be added onto this contract," with some products showing up by the end of the year, Weidman said.

Greg Caressi, research manager for satellite communications at the Frost & Sullivan marketing consulting company in Mountain View, Calif., said Motorola's win is not a surprise.

"It's a useful issue because the military has a need for communications any time, anywhere, which Iridium can meet," Caressi said.

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