Lawmakers Signal Impatience with DoD Bandwidth-buying Reform Effort

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WASHINGTON — An internal U.S. Defense Department effort launched in early 2013 to reform the way it buys commercial satellite communication bandwidth appears to have stalled, even as key lawmakers continue to emphasize the need for change.

Commercial satellite providers have long pushed the Defense Department to change what they characterize as inefficient bandwidth leasing practices. Many were somewhat encouraged when Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition czar, said in March 2013 that the Defense Department was launching a 90-day review of its commercial bandwidth purchasing practices.

But that study, extended several times, appears to have fizzled, officials with several commercial satellite operators said. The study has been sidetracked by other demands within the Pentagon and an unwavering belief among some defense leaders that commercial satellite capacity costs more than bandwidth from military-owned communication satellites.

Commercial satellite operators say they have been told that any formal report from the so-called 90-day review is not releasable. Pentagon officials did not respond by press time to a request for comment.

The reform effort is not dead, say industry officials, who point to a series of so-called pathfinders developed by the Pentagon to test out new ways of doing business with commercial satellite operators.

Under the first of the pathfinder contracts, awarded in June, SES Government Solutions of McLean, Virginia, will lease the full capacity of an aging satellite covering Africa to a Pentagon customer. A request for information for the second pathfinder, under which the Air Force will experiment with the purchase of a prelaunch transponder, was issued later that same month.

But some industry officials, including Philip Harlow, president and chief operating officer of X-band satellite operator Xtar of Herndon, Virginia, say the pathfinder approach selected is the slowest possible route to reform that will take years to play out and could “drag out the process.”

Satellite operators in particular have urged the Defense Department to embrace longer term leases for satellite capacity, which they say would lower the cost per megabit while allowing industry to better align its fleets to meet the needs of one of its largest customers. Pentagon officials say they are typically bound by procurement rules to limit bandwidth leases to one year.

In a March 2014 report, the Defense Department said satellite communications does not meet the standard for multiyear procurement. The report said the Defense Department does not have a solid understanding of trends in its commercial satellite usage, nor can it clearly quantify the money it saves by buying services rather than satellites.

Some U.S. lawmakers appear to be growing impatient with the Pentagon’s on-again, off-again reform effort.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said there is “broad agreement” on Capitol Hill that there needs to be a change.

“One of the biggest challenges in the coming years is how we buy comsatcom,” military parlance for commercial satellite communications, Bridenstine said at a Sept. 19 breakfast here. “Everybody understands comsatcom is not going away. The need for it is only going to grow.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said in an interview Sept. 18 that legislation may be needed to spur the Defense Department to change its ways.

Meanwhile, commercial satellite operators appear to have a well-placed ally in Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command. During the Sept. 19 breakfast, Hyten said the key is to look across the broad spectrum of military satellite communications requirements and then determine the right mix of military versus commercial bandwidth.

That comment seemed to echo a sentiment among many commercial operators, who have called for a single agency within the Defense Department to take charge of meeting satellite communications requirements. Currently the services, primarily the Air Force, procure and operate satellites while the Defense Information Systems Agency leases commercial capacity based on requests made by the services.

“When you think of it as satcom then you have an integrated approach,” he said. “If you think about it as satcom in general and figure out how to look at it as an enterprise … then you can have somebody in charge of the enterprise that reaches out and figures out what is the right mix of commercial, the right mix of military.”