A fleet-wide overhaul of the U.S. Navy’s commercial satellite infrastructure kicked into high gear June 5 with the release of a request for proposals (RFP) to replace the Inmarsat-based terminals on more than 100 medium-sized ships with systems that transmit and receive data at much higher rates.

The bid solicitation is the second of three expedited terminal procurements planned under the Commercial Broadband Satellite Program (CBSP), according to Navy and industry officials. Bids are already in on the first procurement, which is intended to replace Inmarsat systems on small Navy vessels such as mine sweepers.

L-band satellite service, a staple aboard Navy ships since the early 1990s, is being phased out in favor of higher-capacity services operating in X-, Ku- and possibly Ka-band frequencies, according to service and industry officials. Also being targeted for replacement are the commercial C-band services to large-deck ships such as aircraft carriers, the officials said.

Plans call for outfitting 49 ships with the new multi-band terminals in 2008 and 2009, and 195 ships through 2013. In addition to terminals, the CBSP program covers associated terrestrial infrastructure and satellite bandwidth, according to Navy briefing charts. The goal is to make broadband connectivity for applications not directly related to military operations available across the Navy’s fleet down to the troop level, officials said. Currently such high-data-rate services are available only aboard the larger ships, officials said.

The Navy plans to accomplish this quickly. The CBSP has been designated as a rapid deployment capability, meaning the service can bypass many of the time-consuming documentation requirements normally required for procurement programs, according to service and industry officials.

Rear Adm. Michael C. Bachmann, commander of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SpaWar)

here, a buyer of space-related goods and services, said under the usual rules it can take a year and a half to two years to get a request for proposals out the door. With the rapid deployment designation for CBSP, the Navy was able to compress that time frame, he said, adding that terminal deployments are expected to begin as soon as October.

“This technology is coming out faster than we can deploy it,” Bachmann said June 7 during a keynote address at the ISCe Satellite & Communications conference here. “This five-year deployment cycle is not happening anymore … in five years the technology will have changed twice in some cases.”

Bachmann said the CBSP program is intended in part to give sailors at sea access to the same types of bandwidth-intensive collaborative technologies they grew accustomed to in civilian life. “When sailors have more capacity on their cell phones than we have on our [small ships] we’ve got a problem,” he said.

The commercial broadband connectivity also will be used for routine ship-to-shore logistical communications, he said. Such capability is becoming increasingly important as the Navy seeks to minimize the personnel and logistical systems aboard its ships, he said.

The Navy intends to continue relying on military-owned satellites such as the planned Wideband Global Satcom system for communications related to command and control of military operations, Bachmann said. But the Navy needs far more capacity than the military systems alone can provide, and thus commercial satellites have an important augmentation role to play, he said. The CBSP ranks among the U.S. military’s biggest-ever commercial satellite terminal buys; its value will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to industry officials. It also could be a boon to commercial satellite operators offering Ku-band capacity.

For London-based Inmarsat, which specializes in maritime and other mobile services using L-band satellite frequencies, CBSP appears to represent the loss of an important line of business. James J. Shaw, director of Naval programs for Inmarsat Government Services in Washington, said the company will continue to support the Navy but in a different capacity – providing services to aircraft and ground based forces.

Another industry official said Inmarsat terminals likely would remain indefinitely aboard Navy ships as a backup capability.

Aboard the aircraft carriers and other large platforms, the CBSP will replace high-capacity C-band terminals originally deployed in the 1990s under the Challenge Athena initiative. Challenge Athena was created to enable the ships to receive large data files such as imagery via commercial satellites. It has evolved into what is now known as the Commercial Wideband Satellite Program. That program will be phased out by 2009 in favor of the CBSP, and a request for proposals for the necessary terminals is expected in the next couple of months, Bachmann said.

The RFP calls for outfitting the medium-sized ships such as cruisers, destroyers and frigates that comprise the bulk of the Navy’s surface fleet. The Navy is seeking multiband terminals capable of operating in X- and Ku-band frequencies, with an option for Ka-band compatibility.

The CBSP bidder’s list, posted on SpaWar’s e-commerce Web site, includes a wide variety of companies ranging from satellite-terminal hardware suppliers such as General Dynamics to satellite operator SES Americom of Princeton, N.J. In keeping with the program’s fast track approach, bids are due July 11. While the solicitation generated excitement at the ISCe conference, some industry officials expressed concern that as currently structured, the CBSP could leave the Navy scrambling for satellite capacity in certain remote areas of the world. Some regions where the Navy operates are not covered by commercial Ku-band capacity, they said.

With X-band capability, the CBSP terminals would be compatible with the Wideband Global Satcom system, which will have global coverage and whose first satellite is slated for launch this year. However, these industry sources questioned whether that system will always be available given the heavy demands likely to be placed on its substantial capacity.