Satellite Firm Boosts U.S. Army Bandwidth in South Asia

by

Sitting before three flat-panel computer monitors displaying graphical map and satellite imagery in the U.S. Army’s Command Post of the Future in Baghdad, commanders with the 3rd Infantry Division have instant access to intelligence and can talk to fellow commanders on secure Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

Over in the barracks, enjoying their downtime, soldiers use their computers to download music files, send instant messages and chat with friends and family back in the United States via Web cameras and VoIP.

The applications used by commanders during operations and soldiers during downtime may be different, but in the newly digitized U.S. military they want the same thing: bandwidth, and lots of it.

DataPath, a privately owned company based in Duluth, Ga., provides satellite communications to the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Founded in 1996, DataPath specializes in supplying custom-built satellite ground stations and network connections to customers operating in austere environments.

The fast-growing company reported 2004 revenues of $89.7 million, a 130 percent increase over the previous year and its third consecutive year of more than 100 percent annual revenue growth. The company’s 2003 revenues were $39 million.

When DataPath began business, it provided satellite communications for the civilian market. In 1998, the firm won its first government contract as part of the federal Commercial Satellite Communications Initiative, a program to find commercial solutions to the military’s growing demand for bandwidth.

Today DataPath’s business is 90 percent military, and half of its 240 employees are in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving Army and Marine units in the field.

“Companies like DataPath are in a unique perfect storm in that bandwidth demand is growing exponentially, both on the military and commercial side,” said industry analyst Brett Lambert of DFI International.

As the Army has bought more bandwidth-intensive systems, it relies more and more on satellite data networks. Applications such as voice over IP devour vast amounts of bandwidth. When the 3rd Infantry Division deployed to Baghdad earlier this year, it wanted VoIP, which DataPath provided.

“You have to look at bandwidth now like you used to look at fuel for a tank division,” said Army Col. Jeff Kappenman, manager of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

Speed of connectivity is primarily a function of data transportability. Andy Mullins, DataPath’s chief executive, said that transportability comes down to available ground space for antennas, as there is plenty of bandwidth provided by orbiting satellites. Adding more or larger antennas on the ground translates into greater bandwidth.

On June 13, DataPath announced it won a $17.5 million sole-source Army contract to supply 14 Joint Network Node Satellite Communications Trailers and 38 smaller Satellite Battalion Command Post Node Trailers.

These systems will go to the 4th Infantry Division, which is preparing to head back to Iraq. The Army’s first fully digitized division, it requires up to twice the satellite bandwidth of other divisions.

DataPath has equipped four of the Army’s 10 divisions and it expects contracts later this year to equip the rest.

Mullins sees huge potential for DataPath as the U.S. military transforms itself into a fully digitized force. The military’s embrace of the concept of network-centric warfare translates into tremendous bandwidth demand to connect forward deployed and often widely scattered air, ground and sea units.

Mullins said DataPath’s aggressive growth strategy is to offer the military new connectivity solutions, and to acquire companies that provide ground terminal management applications and troubleshooting software. Last month, DataPath acquired M&C Systems, Plano, Texas, a provider of earth terminal monitoring and control software.

One of DataPath’s new initiatives involves providing the U.S. Marine Corps with the ability to broadcast live video feeds from UAVs to multiple command posts across Iraq by locating its portable ground terminals at command nodes.

Lambert said DataPath and other satellite bandwidth suppliers are hot properties right now, whose fast growth and high profits are being eyed hungrily by the private equity markets. “It’s a matter of months, not years, before they get swallowed up,” in an acquisition-driven defense market, he said.