Most American troops are regular users of the Internet, and know how useful a broadband connection can be. But when in combat, or some out-of-the-way place, they will take whatever they can get. And the "whatever" is usually a Motorola 9505 satellite phone. This is the latest model of the first Iridium satellite phone. The good news is that you can hook your 9505 to your laptop, and get access to the Internet. The bad news is, you only got a 220 characters a second connection (that's 2400 baud, most dial up connections these days are about 4,000, and broadband delivers over a hundred times that.) Despite the slow data rate, the troops make good use of their 9505's. Especially for counter-terrorism missions, which can put the troops at the corner of no & where in places like Afghanistan and northeast Africa, the 9505 is the best way to stay in touch with the rest of the world. The U.S. Army Special Forces particularly like them, and the U.S. Marines have used the 9505 as the core element in an improvised battlefield Internet.
The 9505 weighs 13.2 ounces, is 6.2 inches long, 2.5 inches wide and 2.3 inches deep. In effect, a large cell phone. Each battery charge gives you 3.6 hours of talk time, and 38 hours on standby. Recharging often takes place via a vehicle power supply (hummer, or aircraft, depending on where the 9505 is.)
The 9505 has revolutionized how battles, especially in the war on terror, are fought. Commanders, as well as troops, now have a lightweight, worldwide communications system. It is also a secure system, as there is an encryption option (approved by the NSA) for the 9505. SOCOM (U.S. Special Operations Command), often has teams of commandoes spread over huge areas. With the 9505, a commander back in the U.S. can coordinate those ops, and his far-flung teams can call for help at any time, from any place. With the 9505, they can talk to bomber or transport pilots overhead, or to an aircraft carrier a thousand miles a way. What the military is lusting after is a new system of satellites that will provide higher transmission speed. As it stands now, troops can only send or receive low resolution photos. Email is not a problem, as long as the messages are not huge (which the troops in the field prefer.) The problem is that new satellites, that can provide up to a hundred times more data speed, will also cost nearly $20 billion. The Department of Defense is tempted, but Congress is less enthusiastic.
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 satellute 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 deal. stepped in with an offer. 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 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 140,000 other customers (civilian and military, as of the end of 2005). Civilian users pay $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 will require at least 50,000 satellite phones, and much faster connection speed.. The sweet deal with Iridium won't last long, as the Iridium satellite will have to be replaced by 2014, and that will cost billions, and raise the rates for Department of Defense satellite phones. Meanwhile, those Iridium birds have been turned into a vital "military installation," and target.