Information Warfare: Little Big Sat Phone

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March 22, 2011: The U.S. Department of Defense has developed a new, and more effective, way to use satellite phones. The solution is a 500 gr (1.1 pound) satellite phone that is basically a walkie-talkie. This DTCS (Distributed Tactical Communications System) netted Iridium radio uses rechargeable batteries and is push-to-talk. A unit is given a frequency to use, that is good for a circular 160 or 240 kilometer area. Unlike the usual satellite phone, there's no dialing a number and waiting half a minute or more to be connected, with the DTCS phone, the network is always up, and when you push to talk, everyone hears you. Troops know how to deliver short radio messages, and have a special vocabulary for it. So a company of soldiers or marines can use netted Iridium in Afghanistan, where all those hills interfere with FM radios, and instantly be in touch. The DTCS radio can also be hooked up to a laptop and send or receive digital data. Only commanders get these phones, so even for a battalion, there would not be more than a few dozen people on the net, and most of those would be monitoring the net most of the time.

The Iridium system, largely funded by Motorola, went live in late 1998, and filed for bankruptcy the following Summer. It overestimated the market for expensive satellite phone service. Before the 79 Iridium satellites could be pulled out of orbit (and burned up in the process), the U.S. Department of Defense arranged for an investor group to purchase Iridium (for pennies on the dollar), and revive it. As part of the deal, the Department of Defense got a very attractive price on sat phone calls. The Department of Defense got cheap rates for up to 20,000 Iridium based "devices" (mostly phones, but also pagers and such.) That was enough for someone to come in and take over the satellite system (which cost more than $3 million a year to operate) and make a go of it. The new owners didn't have the $5.5 billion in debt to worry about, and were able to lower prices enough that they could sign up 140,000 other customers (civilian and military, as of the end of 2005). Civilian users paid $1.50 a minute to call anyone on the planet. To call an Iridium user, however, it costs about $7 a minute.

The Department of Defense wants a satellite communications capability that can support a true "battlefield Internet." That required at least 50,000 satellite phones initially, and much faster connection speed. The sweet deal with Iridium has been renegotiated several times, to pay for the fact that the Iridium satellites have to be replaced by 2014, and that will cost billions, and raise the rates for Department of Defense satellite phones. Netted Iridium is much cheaper, because each net is basically one call, and it consumes much less Iridium resources.

 


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