Optimism for Better U.S. Military Bandwidth Buying Practices Wanes as Study Drags on

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WASHINGTON — Satellite operators looking to expand their U.S. government business were encouraged in March when Frank Kendall, U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, logistics and technology, announced that the Pentagon would launch a 90-day review of its commercial bandwidth purchasing practices. 

Industry executives have long pushed the Department of Defense (DoD) to change what they characterize as its inefficient bandwidth leasing practices, and at the time they viewed Kendall’s announcement as a swing of momentum in their favor. 

But since then, they say, momentum has slowed. The study, which once seemed immediate, took nearly two months to get underway, and industry executives remain frustrated by its pace and direction. 

In addition to getting a late start, the study is expected to take longer than the 90 days originally envisioned, according to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Pentagon spokesman.

“The 90-day study has gotten off-track from what Mr. Kendall stated in his address to industry,” said one industry executive, who did not want to be named.

Nicole Robinson, vice president of communications and government affairs for SES Government Solutions of McLean, Va., a subsidiary of European satellite operator SES, said executives there are puzzled by the aim of the study. 

“When we first discussed this topic with DoD, the focus was appropriately placed on finding mutually acceptable business models that incentivize industry to invest and ensure future capability is available,” she said. “Unless DoD believes commercial satcom isn’t a necessary part of our communications infrastructure, the focus should be on ensuring it is available where and when needed in the future.”

Pickart said via email Aug. 23 that the study group’s steering committee met Aug. 15 and “directed additional data collection concerning current [commercial satellite communications] utilization and growth trends.” This activity could include dissecting how much bandwidth the Pentagon paid for in leases versus how much it actually used. 

Industry executives view these additional questions as a distraction.

“We caution [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and others not to be distracted by the question of commercial bandwidth utilization which has been studied in the past but has not led to concrete conclusions,” said Philip Harlow, president and chief operating officer of Xtar LLC of Herndon, Va., which operates X-band satellites and markets the capacity to government customers. “This may be just one more subjective debate that can sidetrack the focus on questions that will make a difference.”

Industry has recommended, for example, that the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which procures commercial satellite capacity on behalf of military users, be more open to long-term bandwidth leases. 

“We truly believed, as we continue to believe, that specific near-term steps can be taken to realize almost immediate and significant cost-savings,” Harlow said.

Robinson suggested the study aim to produce business models that “incentivize industry to invest where and when needed” as well as to address the acquisition authority that would be needed to lower costs and reduce the risk of bandwidth gaps. 

The study committee is headed by Teri Takai, the Pentagon’s chief information officer, and Katrina McFarland, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, Pickart said. Other group members include the undersecretary of defense for policy, the Pentagon comptroller, the executive agent for space, the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, and senior representatives from the military departments, cost assessment and program evaluation, DISA, Joint Staff and U.S. Strategic Command, he said.