The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is fast becoming the customer commercial satellite operators covet most, and virtually all the major service providers worldwide are making that business a top priority.

The full-court press taking place among satellite operators to secure additional DoD contracts was evident during the recent Institute for Defense and Government Advancement (IDGA) military satellite conference here, which featured several commercial satellite company representatives touting their capabilities and flexibility to spring into action quickly to meet the needs of government customers.

The services offered by commercial satellite providers also are stretching beyond the provision of in-orbit capacity to include a variety of new initiatives.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has become the satellite industry’s single largest customer and the Defense Department has been the biggest driver behind the new wave of demand, said Don Ritter, vice president of government services at PanAmSat G2 Satellite Solutions. The role of the commercial satellite operators has gone from augmentation to becoming strategic partners with the Department of Defense, he added.

Commercial satellite bandwidth is still a core U.S. government requirement but integrated and end-to-end Internet Protocol (IP) solutions are increasing in demand, Ritter said.

The U.S. government’s use of commercial satellite services hit an estimated $500 million a year during 2002 and is expected to reach $1.5 billion a year by 2007, said Robert Turner, director of government services at New Skies Satellites of The Hague, the Netherlands . The demand is growing at a double-digit percentage rate annually, he added.

Roughly 60 percent of the use of commercial satellite services is coming from the Department of Defense, Turner said. The military has the broadest requirements that include services and solutions that are global in scope, he added.

The remaining 40 percent of the U.S. government’s use of commercial satellite services comes from a variety of agencies that include the intelligence community and the State Department, Turner explained. The intelligence agencies feature the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

One of the drivers of the rising military use of commercial satellite services, for example, is Network Centric Warfare, Turner said. Network Centric Warfare is a term used to describe a broad range of communications capabilities that are linked together in a network to serve the information needs of warfighters. That application is one of those that is lifting the demand curve and creating a long-term trend, Turner added .

Civilian agencies that have stepped up their use of commercial satellite services include NASA and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The Department of Homeland Security also is poised to become a significant customer for commercial satellite operators. The domestically focused agencies typically need service that covers the full continental United States, Turner said. International services, in contrast, are required by the Coast Guard, Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol, he added.

Another significant development is the use of satellite communications to support the growing military use of unmanned aerial vehicles, Turner said. Those unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming a “critical component” of the U.S. military arsenal, he added.

Satellite communications aid unmanned aerial vehicles today in providing command and control of the aircraft when operating beyond the line of sight, as well as in the transportation of sensor data retrieved from the onboard sensor and delivered to the user, Turner said.

A large and reliable supply of bandwidth is needed to support a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, Turner said. The uses of such unmanned aerial vehicles include the global fight against terrorism. Their ability to provide reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition and to assist with combat missions is most helpful to the military, he added.

Unmanned aerial vehicles also can be instrumental in homeland security by deterring illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorist activity, Turner said. Such vehicles also can support Border Patrol officials in the surveillance of the combined 6,000 miles between the United States, Canada and Mexico, he added.

Intelsat also is focused on the business potential of DoD’s network centric warfare needs. The company is touting its responsiveness in offering bandwidth, with coverage and connectivity to aid military operations. Its networks are based on IP and offer the high data rates needed by military users, said Britt Lewis, vice president of marketing and business development.

Commercial satellite operators, such as Intelsat, have been at the forefront of meeting the surge in requirements underlying the overall global war on terrorism, Lewis said. To that end, more than 80 percent of the bandwidth supporting operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and now playing a role in reconstruction support, have been provided by commercial satellite operators, he added.

Close collaboration exists between Intelsat and other commercial satellite operators with industry partners that include Artel, Arrowhead and Spacelink, all three of which procure satellite capacity for the Defense Department, Lewis said.

Intelsat, Lewis said, relocated five satellites and re-pointed certain steerable Ku-band spot beams to address the surge in bandwidth requirements.

With the use of an iDirect Technologies platform, Intelsat rolled out a global broadband IP communications service that offers multimedia services at extremely high data rates that are well in excess of what would be possible with Digital Subscriber Lines, or DSL, Lewis said. Those services can be delivered to rural and remote areas where forces may deploy. The uses include Internet access, Virtual Private Network /Intranet access, logistics and security monitoring, he added.

“We offer, on a truly global basis, converged, secure IP services, through our global network of 27 satellites, five teleport sites, 48 teleport antennas, four hubs and fiber interconnects with major points of presence around the world,” Lewis said.

Another company trying to ride the rising tide of DoD demand is West Chicago, Ill.-based Infinite Global Infrastructures LLC, a small business that primarily focuses on the design, integration and implementation of large-scale, high-reliability communications systems for high-speed satellite and terrestrial networks, said David R. Beering, its principal and founder. The company offers mobile communications networks for ships, aircraft, spacecraft and land-based vehicles.

One user of the networks provided by Infinite Global Infrastructures is a vessel called Entropy, which is based off the Lake Michigan shoreline east of Chicago. It uses a Ka-band satellite link that operates at 45 megabits per second, Beering said.

Another ship that is supported by Infinite Global Infrastructures will operate in the sea along Midway Island when the vessel’s all-IP communications network is completed in late-2005, Beering said. The ship will feature the most advanced network afloat, he added.