Information Warfare: The Iridium Hotspot


March 7, 2014: The U.S. Department of Defense has arranged for satellite telephone service provider Iridium to supply small (300 gr/10.3 ounce and the size of a small paperback) battery powered Iridium GO! devices that can connect to the Iridium satphone network and provide a local wifi hotspot. Up to five users with a wifi devices within about 30 meters (a hundred feet) of the Iridium GO! can have Internet access. That means smartphones or tablets can use texting, Skype to make phone calls or a browser for web search and limited downloading. All of this uses military encryption. The Iridium Go! devices will cost the Department of Defense $800 each and the Iridium service is taken care of by the contracts the Department of Defense has had with Iridium for over a decade. Currently the Department of Defense (which also provides other government agencies with satphone service) is Iridiums largest customer accounting for about 20 percent of revenues.

This tight relationship between Iridium began back in 2000. The Iridium satellite system was put up in the 1990s at a cost of $5.5 billion. Alas, not enough customers could be obtained for the expensive satellite telephone service, and in 2000 the company was not only broke but no one wanted to take over its network of 79 satellites. The situation was so dire that the birds were going to be de-orbited (brought lower so they would burn up in the atmosphere.) Then the Department of Defense stepped in with an offer. For $3 million a month the Department of Defense would get unlimited use of up to 20,000 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 month 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 were able to sign up 80,000 other customers (civilian and military.)

The Department of Defense paid about $150-$200 a month per satellite phone account under the 2000 contract. Civilian customers paid more and the company thrived. Now Iridium is about to launch a new generation of satellites that will provide faster and cheaper service.

Iridium survived in large part because of the Pentagon business that grew larger after September 11, 2001. In 2013 the Department of Defense signed a five year, $400 million contract with Iridium. There are currently over 51,000 Department of Defense and other U.S. government Iridium users.

Back in 2000 the plan was that each combat brigade would have over 500 satellite phone accounts. That was never needed, in part because the air force and navy wanted lots of satphones as well and the army began using portable satellite dishes to obtain high-speed service from military and commercial communication satellites.

The Iridium and other satellite communications capability was the key to making the battlefield Internet work, although the army has found that it’s more efficient (and cheaper) to use military radios and other wireless devices to network with each other and get Internet access via satellite dishes connected with the military satellite communications system. But for many small units out in the bush Iridium is still the way to go.



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