U.S. Government-leased Satellite Capacity Going Unused

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LONDON — Much of the more than $1 billion in commercial satellite capacity purchased by the U.S. government each year is unused because the agency charged with allocating the bandwidth has no idea when it is sitting idle, an official with that agency said Nov. 28.

While this is partly due to the necessarily lumpy nature of military usage of satellite telecom services, a lot of it is nothing more than poor management of an expensive resource, the official said.

“Our day-to-day average is 3 to 5 percent,” said Cindy Moran, director of network services at the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). “It’s like buying a smartphone, with a contract, and then never turning it on.”

Addressing the Global Milsatcom conference here organized by SMi Group, Moran said the situation should improve as DISA moves toward the use of Internet Protocol and other means of divvying up capacity based on actual use.

She speculated that the total amount of commercial satellite capacity purchased by the U.S. government — estimated at $1.2 billion per year — would not go down, but could be used to accommodate the military’s ever-increasing demand.

Moran agreed with estimates that on a megahertz basis, 80 percent of the satellite bandwidth used by the U.S. government is purchased from commercial satellite operators.

The U.S. government, and especially the U.S. Department of Defense, is the world’s largest customer for short-term leases of commercial satellite capacity. Moran said the different customers for the bandwidth operate in separate stovepipes — more like titanium tubes, she said — and are not necessarily coordinating with neighboring government users, making it difficult to determine who is using the purchased capacity and who is not.

In the current system, whether for Internet or satellite bandwidth, “I don’t get to reallocate across the spectrum if the customer that is ostensibly using it is not using it,” she said. “I am buying at the commercial tariff rate.”

One way DISA is modernizing its procedures for satellite capacity purchases is through a new procurement vehicle called the Future Commercial Satellite Communications Services Acquisition (FCSA).

Moran applauded FCSA for opening up the procurement system to new players, and said that while the possibility of contract award protests has increased, DISA is convinced that FCSA is allowing the agency quicker access to new technology and a more competitive supplier base.

Under the previous commercial satellite bandwidth procurement regime, DISA had three companies licensed to deal with it for the purchase of fixed satellite services. Under FCSA there are 21 companies.

For satellite-delivered subscription services, there are 23 providers under FCSA, compared with five previously.

The downside to this diversity of choice is that it now takes DISA much longer to negotiate the contracts and make satellite capacity available. Under the previous contracting regime, the average time between seeking the service and providing it was 27 days. Under FCSA, it is 76 days.

“We absolutely have to do better in this area,” Moran said.

Moran also sought to convince an audience composed of military officials and commercial contractors that the current budget crunch at the Department of Defense is not a one-year issue.

“My personal view is that we are not even close to hitting bottom,” she said. “It will likely get worse and worse over the next five to six years.”

Moran said DISA will be attempting to renegotiate “every single contract” to get a better rate. She said spending that is not part of a “program of record” at the Defense Department, even for efficiency-driven initiatives such as moving to new ways of managing bandwidth, will receive tough scrutiny.

DISA’s task of securing funds for the necessary bandwidth for U.S. forces is not made easier when the Defense Department’s larger programs encounter embarrassing development slips.

Having satellites in orbit and ready to operate well before the associated ground infrastructure is ready, or vice versa, “does not give us a whole lot of credibility when we go back” to Congress and ask for additional funding for satellite capacity, she said.

She mentioned the Defense Department’s Mobile User Objective System program as an example of a lack of synchronicity between satellite and ground network deployment.