Space: July 1, 2005

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The U.S. Department of Defense has a major communications problem. Since combat troops were first allowed to use satellite communications, on a large scale, in 2003, the grunts have made it clear that they want to keep their satcom. The trouble is, the Department of Defense cant afford it. Or maybe they can, by plugging into the XM Radio network.

Satellite communications made a major impression when used in over 3,000 Blue Force Tracker (BFT) radios during the 2003 Iraq operations. The same gear was distributed to American troops in Afghanistan a little earlier. BFT was basically a combination of satcom link and GPS. Commanders who had it could look at their laptop display and see where they, and every other BFT user is, all over the Middle East and Afghanistan. Not only that, but BFT users could IM (Instant Message) each other. This was a revolutionary combat tool, making it much easier to coordinate operations, and avoid friendly fire incidents. After that first use, infantry officers reported to their superiors, with an I will kill for this look in their eyes, that they had to have more of it. Satcom was more reliable than any earlier radio technology. It saved lives and gave American troops another edge in combat. 

But satcom is expensive. The Department of Defense satcom bill is headed for over ten billion dollars a year. And its got no place to go but up, way up. It would be worse had not the Department of Defense bailed out the bankrupt Iridium satellite phone network in 2000. This gave the Department of Defense a decade of low cost (about 25 cents a minute) satcom use. Now, the Department of Defense has figured out how to use the new digital radio networks to deliver low cost satcom. While satellite based radio, like XM, are one way, a lot of the military satcom traffic is essentially one way. New information is always being sent out, like maps and pictures. The XM network is expanding its coverage from just North America, to other parts of the world. This will enable it to better service its new customer. The first application of the XM network will be the Mobile Enhanced Situational Awareness Network (MESA). This would use a dedicated channel on XMs satellite network, and would send data only to special receivers (used by troops or emergency personnel). These would be nearly identical to the usual XM receivers, with a modification to receive the special signal. 

 


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