For those of you who have yet to finalize your summer reading list, let me recommend the House and Senate 2009 Defense authorization bills, or as they are affectionately known to the cognoscenti – S. 3001 and H.R. 5658. The bills and their companion reports weigh in at nearly 2,000 pages, so, admittedly, they make for clumsy beach reading. But, if you have an interest in satellite communications, these reports provide some fascinating insights into the ongoing national dialogue on this important topic.

Both the House and Senate authorizers convey their clear anxiety over a potential future gap in essential bandwidth. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), surveillance and reconnaissance systems, and major programs such as the Army’s Future Combat System are all tremendously consumptive of bandwidth.

The Senate report notes that there appears to be a “disconnect between the bandwidth requirements of major systems … and the ground and space systems required to meet those requirements.”

The House expresses concern that “the Department lacks an organization” capable of conducting the trades necessary to balance large system acquisitions and their bandwidth needs. The House goes further and urges the Department of Defense to consider establishing a bandwidth management organization with milestone decision authority based on whether a proposed capability can be supported by the department’s communication architecture. In other words: no bandwidth, no program.

The committees also both express concern about the Defense Department’s future relationship with the commercial satellite industry, which is today supplying nearly 80 percent of the department’s satellite traffic. The Senate, noting that commercial capacity is being funded primarily through supplemental appropriations for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, calls for a review of “the most appropriate funding approach for sustained and surge requirements and opportunities to involve the commercial satellite industry in planning to ensure the capability will be available when and where it is needed.”

The House, for its part, calls on DoD to conduct an assessment that would develop “a recommended investment and acquisition strategy for commercial satellite capabilities.” The House also directs that the assessment should identify options for expanding commercial utilization and leveraging new commercial capabilities, such as hosted payloads.

The discussion over the role that the commercial industry should play in meeting DoD’ssatcom requirements is hardly a new one. What is new, however, is the urgency that Congress seems to be attaching to the “bandwidth gap” and their seeming rejection of the assumption that – at least in the short and medium term – new military systems such as the Wideband Global Satcom system and the Advance Extremely High Frequency satellites will provide a comprehensive solution.

As recently as two years ago, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) conducted a comprehensive assessment of the department’s commercial satcom needs and acquisition policies. That report, known as the Section 818 Report, concluded that the practice of buying commercial bandwidth on the spot market was cost effective and that, given the availability of commercial capacity globally, there was no need to make long-term purchases to pre- position capacity to meet future DoD needs.

Since the publication of the Section 818 Report, experience has shown that DISA’s assessment of global demand was conservative and their assessment of global supply was optimistic. As a result, the price for new commercial bandwidth for the military has risen sharply, and capacity limitations have constrained certain high-bandwidth activities such as UAV operations. It is common today for satellite operators to “no bid” government contracts to support the wars in
because they lack capacity in the
Indian Ocean

The ability to respond rapidly to evolving bandwidth needs – whether for video distribution in North America or cellular backhaul in Africa– is one of the commercial satellite industry’s great strengths. With the appropriate financial incentive, new and substantial commercial capability can be on orbit and operational in as little as 30 months.

Take, for example, the industry’s response to the demand for Ku-band satellite capacity in North America from 2003 until now. According to Northern Sky Research, fueled by a robust video and data market, demand for Ku- band capacity over North Americais growing at a healthy 7 percent compound annual growth rate.

This demand translates roughly into a requirement for an additional 172 transponders from a baseline of 435 transponders, or a 40 percent increase in transponder units demanded. Satellite operators respond to this demand by launching the equivalent of 232 additional units of capacity from a baseline of 530 transponder equivalents, or a 44 percent increase in transponder units supplied.

preference for its own “owned and operated” satellite systems combined with inflexible acquisition rules have prevented the commercial communications satellite industry from mounting a similarly aggressive response to DoD’s future bandwidth requirements. The private sector also is hampered by the so-called “fee versus free” conundrum. DoD users are not charged for organic DoDsatcom capabilities but users who wish to use commercial capacity must budget for these services. DoD users then prefer the “free” DoD service, even when a commercial solution may be the more cost-effective option.

The result is that DoD has continued to purchase satellite capacity “by the drink” with one-year contracts and without any substantive dialogue with the industry on its future needs.

Five years ago, the Satellite Industry Association organized a meeting between the senior military space officers and the leaders of the commercial communications satellite industry. The focus of the meeting from the private sector perspective was how, through an expanded dialogue and more flexible contracting approaches, the commercial industry could become a more responsible and committed partner in the provision of satellite services to the military.

Central to the executives’ position was their argument that the global bandwidth glut that existed at the outbreak of the war was unlikely to continue. After several hours with no appreciable progress, one of the frustrated executives leaned across the table and said: “You are fighting a war with bandwidth that you did not plan for and did not pay for. In the long run, luck is a bad strategy.”

It appears that the House and Senate authorizers are starting to share that opinion.

Richard DalBello is vice president for external relations at Intelsat General, Bethesda, Md., which sells satellite services to the