Americom Readies Mobile Broadband Service for U.S. Military

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  Space News Business

Americom Readies Mobile Broadband Service for U.S. Military

By MISSY FREDERICK
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 06 March 2006
04:16 pm ET


A unit of satellite operator SES Americom is testing a new service designed to provide two-way broadband access to military vehicles traveling at speeds of up to 100 kilometers per hour, a capability that experts say is in great demand by today’s increasingly mobile U.S. forces.

Americom Government Services Inc. of a McLean, Va. , has teamed up with satellite terminal manufacturer ViaSat Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., to offer a service dubbed Command and Control On-The-Move . The service will be introduced first in the Indian Ocean region and the United States, with a global rollout to follow.

Americom Government Services provides end-to-end satellite solutions for government customers using satellite capacity provided by its parent company and others. SES Americom is part of SES Global of Luxembourg, currently the world’s largest satellite-fleet operator.

The Ku-band Command and Control On-The-Move service will enable vehicles such as High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, or humvees, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles to download and send data while traveling at relatively high speeds , according to David Helfgott, chief executive officer of Americom Government Services. Americom has been doing its initial product testing with Suffolk, Va.-based Joint Forces Command, and expects to finish in time for a service launch in spring or early summer, he said.

In tests, the system is transferring information at rates of 10 megabits per second to the vehicle and up to 512 kilobits per second from the vehicle to the U.S. Defense Department’s Global Information Grid, Helfgott said in an interview.

“We see this being used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance applications, for video or very dense, very rich imagery and graphics, video teleconferencing and stuff that uses up bandwidth,” he said.

Delivering connections at speeds greater than 1 megabyte to vehicles moving faster than 88 kilometers per hour has become a mantra of sorts at the Pentagon , according to Andrea Maleter, technical director of Futron Corp., a market research firm headquartered in Bethesda, Md. “They’ve been talking about that for years, so they’re clearly interested in it,” she said.

Other potential customers include the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency , the Secret Service and border patrol, Helfgott said. Americom Government Services is negotiating contracts with several potential customers, he said, declining to be specific.

Helfgott said the service could fill a critical need for the U.S. military as it waits for its own advanced satellite communications systems to come on line in the years ahead.

Potential military users, while cautioning that they were unfamiliar with Americom’s specific offering, said the capability sounded attractive, particularly given the Pentagon’s increasing emphasis on mobility and information superiority.

But military officials likely would want to see the results of testing in a rugged battlefield-type environment before committing to the service , these sources said. The U.S. Air Force has had problems with commercial-type equipment being insufficiently stable for a rugged environment in the past, they noted. For example, they said, after buying terminals based on commercial equipment for the military’s satellite-based Global Broadcast Service back in 2000, the military had to invest millions of dollars more to make the hardware more rugged.

Another potential roadblock is squabbling within the military bureaucracy over who would pay for the service, said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a think tank here. “Is this going to come out of the Army budget? The Air Force budget?” Hitchens said . “That’s traditionally been one of the problems when you’re talking about using commercial services. “

But Maleter said the military has such a great need for mobile broadband connectivity that it will find a way to utilize the new service. “One of the key things here is that they don’t have to fund a whole new deployment of spacecraft,” Maleter said. “This is something they would buy or lease as they need it. It doesn’t get them into any longer-term commitments.”

Helfgott said a culture change is occurring at the Pentagon that supports wider use of commercial services. “I think there is a realization … that communication satellite services has gone from something that’s nice to have, on the margins, as an augmentation service, to a core, strategic need,” Helfgott said. “The short answer is yes, in the long run, there will be funding, but it’s going to take a little while to move this all the way through the system.”

Another on-the-move broadband application for military use is Inmarsat‘s Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service, which also is slated for introduction shortly. Thrane & Thrane, a Norway-based manufacturer of Inmarsat terminals, recently released its Explorer 527 terminal , which is designed for mobile users . BGAN is expected to be available in the United States by the second quarter of 2006.

BGAN will not move data as quickly as Americom’s service, but has other advantages, said George Spohn, vice president of sales and marketing for Thrane & Thrane. BGAN terminals will cost less and be far less bulky than Command and Control On-The-Move hardware, he said.

Thrane & Thrane’s BGAN terminals cost approximately $19,000. Helfgott said Americom is not yet releasing cost details associated with its new service.

“They really are not necessarily competing services, but they’re complementary services,” said Spohn.

Jeremy Singer contributed to this story from Washington.