Iridium to Offer Satellite Hotspot to Military Customers

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

To stay connected on the battlefield, the military employs communication tools that gobble up bandwidth. To improve reliability and reduce cost, one company has developed a satellite-communication hotspot that can accommodate multiple users.

Iridium Communications Inc., a McLean, Va.-based mobile satellite company, will offer later this year a pocket-sized hotspot that will connect to its low-Earth orbiting constellation of 66 satellites.
Iridium GO! can link to the Internet anywhere in the world, company officials said. Users can connect gadgets such as smartphones and tablets to the Internet quickly by raising an antenna on the battery-powered device. It weighs 10.4 ounces, and is the size of a couple packs of playing cards.

Up to five users within 100 feet of each other can make phone calls, send text messages or browse the Internet.

"[It] is a cell tower in your pocket,” said Tim Johnson, director of land mobile business at the company. It is also ruggedized and can withstand rain and dust, he said. 

“We are the only satellite provider in the world that actually covers the entire globe from pole to pole,” said Johnson. 

In 2015, Iridium will begin the process of replacing its constellation of 66 satellites with newer versions. The multi-billion dollar upgrade will expand capacity and increase data speeds. There should be no lapse in service while the satellites are replaced, said Johnson.

Iridium has had a longstanding, multi-year relationship with the Defense Department. In October, the company was awarded a $400 million, five-year, fixed-price contract with the Defense Information Systems Agency to provide satellite airtime services. The contract will provide the Defense Department with unlimited global secure and unsecure voice, low and high-speed data and paging services for military and federal government subscribers.

"There is a sort of cost efficiency for the military. Since they are taking our services on an unlimited usage and unlimited subscriber basis, there is no real incremental cost to them for using the service beyond buying the equipment," said Johnson.

Iridium GO! is slated to be released during the second quarter of 2014.

The unveiling comes at a time whenthe government wants new mobile communication technology, but has little funding to pay for expensive new satellites or devices, officials have said.

Iridium executives said Go! can provide equal or better functionality for half of the price of current systems. In addition, one hotspot can provide five mobile devices with service, opposed to a single device with a traditional satellite phone.

Most of Iridium's satellite phones sell for between $1,000 and $1,500, Johnson said. Iridium GO! will cost around $800 per device, he said. There are also reoccurring access and usage fees for non-governmental customers. There are a number of data bundles to choose from, and for commercial companies, the cost of an al-la-carte data package could range from $30 to over $100 per month, he said.

Iridium GO! is ideal for incorporating smartphone usage on the soldier-level, Johnson said.

“It’s clear the military is moving toward smartphone technology for individual soldiers, in part because of the power smartphones have,” said Johnson. “This is a natural way to be able to extend that because if you are already using smartphones … this provides connectively for that smartphone over our satellite network.”

Another new product is Iridium Burst, a mass message service that can transmit one-way communications to other users with an energy level high enough to penetrate buildings, aircraft and other structures that don't have a direct line of sight to the Iridium satellites. 

There are battlefield applications for Burst, said one executive. It can covertly send out messages anywhere in the world in no more than 90 seconds.

It could be used for distress calls or a commander in the field could send an alert to forces all over the globe, said Dan Tillet, director of product line management at Iridium.

While Iridium does not offer encryption services, the military could use its own encryption systems with Burst. Added encryption could slightly increase message delivery times, Tillet said.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Science and Engineering Technology, Space

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