the Defense Department
has benefited in recent years
from an oversupply of available bandwidth in the
commercial satellite communications market,
those days may be coming to an end, according to a DoD
Industry officials have warned in the past
that the military’s bandwidth demands might soon outpace the available commercial supply in some regions,
a scenario that some military officials had not accepted.
However, in a Dec.
21 interview, Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, program executive officer for the satcom, teleport and services office at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), said
the Defense Department
is able to buy what it needs today but is facing a market that is becoming more crowded with customers.
Suppliers, she said, are more likely to launch new satellites based on demand, rather than a “build it, we will come” philosophy to avoid generating another bandwidth surplus in the future.
That scenario would provide challenges for DoD, which likes to fill surges in its demand by buying
available bandwidth on an as-needed basis. For example, o
ne area that could pose a challenge
in the future is Africa, where the Pentagon recently established a new command, Cowen-Hirsch said.
While the Pentagon faces a changing commercial market, U.S. forces will soon be able to take advantage of a variety of new military-owned satellites that
likely will lead to a decreased overall reliance on commercial services, Cowen-Hirsch said.
The military relies on commercial services for about 80 percent of its bandwidth in current operations.
The military will continue its strong partnership with commercial service providers in the future, but quantifying how the split may change over the next five or so years is difficult, as past forecasts have often been inaccurate, Cowen-Hirsch said.
New military communications satellites like the Wideband Global Satcom System, each of which offer as much bandwidth as the entire Defense Satellite Communications System satellites that they began to replace in October 2007, can play a role in handling communications that might
previously have been sent over commercial channels, Cowen-Hirsch said.
However, other factors that tug in different directions and make it difficult to precisely forecast the military’s needs in this area include a possible reduction in deployed forces, and the increased use of intelligence assets like unmanned aerial vehicles that are heavy
consumers of commercial satellite bandwidth, she said.
Another changing trend is the cost of commercial services, which Cowen-Hirsch noted has risen in recent years. The cost in 2005 of the equivalent of one satellite transponder was $1.1 million; in 2006, that figure rose to $1.2 million, she said.
Still, the Pentagon, which consumes about 3 percent to 4 percent of available commercial bandwidth, receives significantly better prices than most other customers, Cowen-Hirsch said.
She said DISA’s “premier vehicle of choice”
for purchasing satellite communications services has been the Defense Satellite Transmission Services – Global (DSTS-G) contracting vehicle, under which three companies compete to provide the military with capacity by negotiating the terms with fleet operators who have bandwidth available over particular regions of interest.
The DSTS-G contract runs through February 2011, and as DISA contemplates
the arrangement that might
follow, it wants to ensure that it maintains the flexibility to adapt to new developments in satellite communications, Cowen-Hirsch said. Changes that have been made to the DSTS-G contract include the ability to order X-band services and faster turnaround times for some orders, she said.
One complaint that the commercial service providers
often have raised about their military customer is a lack of long-term leases that make planning more difficult. However, Cowen-Hirsch said
DISA has made long-term deals through DSTS-G, and has been a stable customer on other contracts, with a 90 percent renewal rate.
DISA could enter into more long-term arrangements if its own funding was more stable, Cowen-Hirsch said. While the Navy plans for spending on commercial services in its annual budgets that it channels through DISA, the Army and Air Force
generally have used supplemental requests for this purpose, making it more challenging for DISA to make long-term plans, she said.
Longer contracts are not a major concern for commercial service providers as they plan operations for the next several years due to current high demand for commercial services driven by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an industry official. While DISA currently has a high renewal rate in this period of strong demand, the providers face an uncertain future if the United States were to slow down or cease those operations, the official said.
One issue that the industry has struggled with at times is convincing members of the military services to pay for commercial services, according to Scott Scheimreif, assistant vice president for Iridium Satellite’s government division. Military customers can be resistant to buying commercial services because they have to pay directly for the bandwidth, and may prefer to rely on military satellites whose cost is paid for out of Air Force acquisition accounts without a direct fee to users, he said.
However, the high value of the commercial services has helped industry make progress in this area, he said.