Electronic Weapons: For Want Of A Satphone

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April 27, 2014: Indian paramilitary police are asking for several dozen satellite phones so that units fighting Maoist rebels in rural areas of eastern India would have reliable communications. The Maoists are active throughout eastern India and have been increasingly prone to taking down (by damaging key cell towers) mobile phone systems before some of their major operations. If the police had some satellite phones available at all times this Maoist tactic would be much less effective. Sat phones are more expensive (2-3 times the cost of an unsubsidized cell phone) to buy and operate (up to a dollar a minute, although much cheaper rates can be negotiated.) It’s actually a pretty cheap solution for a common police/military communications problem. But the Indian procurement bureaucracy is very unpredictable so the cops may not get this particular lifesaver. The police have military type radios but these are not always reliable in hilly country.

Satellite phones (or sat phones) have only been around since the late 1970s, about as long as the PC has been commercially available. Unlike PCs, satellite phones don’t get a lot of media attention, but they have become invaluable tools for those working in places isolated from most forms of communication.

Inmarsat was the first satellite phone system. This outfit began in the 1970s with a network of stationary satellites that required larger (currently laptop size) phones. Inmarsat's customers are mainly ships or facilities in remote locations. The large terminals are a disadvantage for military use.

What really made sat phones widely available to military users was the Iridium Corporation, whose 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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