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Satellite Communications Business Debate Surfaces

Commercial satellite service providers question government’s dedication to president’s National Space Policy. While the policy calls for a stalwart pursuit of work with U.S. companies, little progress has been seen in putting this policy into practice.
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Online Exclusive

The lines of communication between the U.S. government and the commercial satellite communications industry seem to be down. Despite the guidelines in President Barack Obama’s National Space Policy that call for the “purchase and use of commercial space capabilities and services to the maximum practical extent,” conversations between the government and companies appear to have stalled. In addition, after careful review of the policy, the commercial sector now sees contradictions that could harm U.S. companies.

According to Philip Harlow, president and chief operating officer, XTAR LLC, serious discussions between companies and the U.S. government began two years ago. But in the past six months, sharing information about requirements and solutions has been a one-way street. Industry continues to try to convince the military that stating their requirements early would greatly reduce how much it is paying for approximately 80 percent of the satellite communications (SATCOMs) for current operations. If these SATCOM firms knew the capacity and capabilities that will be needed, they could begin to build satellites to those specs. As a result, the satellites would be in place to provide the services at regular rather than last-minute prices.

“The National Space Policy says the government should work with industry. But where the rubber meets the road, this is not happening. In the past six months, discussions have taken a huge step backwards,” Harlow states. “We need an honest dialog about what the risks and factors the government sees with regard to future needs.”

Bruce Bennett, program executive officer, communications, Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), agrees that information sharing has slowed recently, he offers that it has been for good reason. “Over the past few months, DISA has been engaged in source selection activities for COMSATCOM services and to safeguard source selection sensitive information, discussions on specific topics with all segments of the COMSATCOM industry have been less frequent. It is important to note that DISA has been engaged with industry at major SATCOM events held the past three months, for example Global MILCOM, SATCON 2010 and the DOD SATCOM Users’ Workshop,” he explains.

Regarding providing long-term requirements, Bennett explains that many of the COMSATCOM task orders are for a one-year period with additional option years. “It is important to note that DOD appreciates industry's ability to support the uncertain nature of DOD requirements—for example, frequency bands, locations and capacity are all variables that may change either during a satellite operator's planning stages or during the satellite's lifespan.

“The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Center (USAF SMC) has released two requests for information (RFI) in the past 9 months to develop alternatives required for the DOD-mandated Analysis of Alternative for MILSATCOM. The USAF SMC plans to award several Broad Agency Announcements this fiscal year. DISA will also release an RFI and a request for proposals for a potential SATCOM alternative,” Bennett relates.

Richard DalBello, vice president, legal and government, Intelsat General, believes the U.S. SATCOM business is in an even more serious predicament than a lack of communication. The goals set forth in the National Space Policy appear to be contradictory, he insists. The Commercial Space Guidelines section says, “Refrain from conducting U.S. space activities that preclude, discourage or compete with U.S. commercial space activities… .” However, it also calls for departments and agencies to identify potential areas for international cooperation in a laundry list of space activities, including SATCOM.

Pursuing international cooperation could seriously injure the U.S. SATCOM industry, DalBello contends. For example, when the U.S. Defense Department sells foreign governments capabilities on military satellite communications spacecraft, other nations do not need to buy satellite capabilities from U.S. commercial satellite operators. The U.S. government has become an industry competitor.

Budgeting is another issue. “The military services don’t by and large budget for commercial [SATCOM]. They budget for buying their own stuff. When they purchase commercial satellite capabilities, all of that money is coming either out of war supplementals or the operations and maintenance budget. There isn’t any clearly articulated program for buying what is essentially 80 percent of their requirement,” DalBello explains.

Bennett explains that one of the key objectives of the Future COMSATCOM Services Acquisition (FCSA) program is to open competition for Defense Department and federal government business to more COMSATCOM companies. “Not only does FCSA provide competition across more competitors, the three segmentations of FCSA ensure competition across a greater breadth of types of contractors. The degree of competition—number of qualified offerers—is a major contributor in achieving cost efficiencies in any acquisition,” he states.