Military and other federal users will continue to have access over the next five years to the Iridium satellite constellation, which supports handheld phones, through a set of contracts worth $438 million that the Defense Information Systems Agency signed with the company this month.
DISA awarded Iridium a $400 million airtime contract on Oct. 18 and on Tuesday signed a $38 million deal with the company to for maintenance and support of the DISA-owned satellite gateway located on Wahiawa, Honolulu, Hawaii and first turned on in 1998.
The airtime contract covers voice and low data rate service at a speed of 2,400 bits per second. Iridium also offers deployed forces a service called the Distributed Tactical Communications System, which provides “push-to-talk” radio-type service
Iridium, developed by Motorola in the late 1990s failed commercially due to the widespread growth of the mobile phone industry. But its constellation of 66 low earth orbit satellites provide military and federal users with unique global coverage – including the poles – not available from geosynchronous satellites parked 23,000 miles above the earth.
The low orbit also enables the use of handheld phones, rather than receivers which require a bulky antenna. Space News reported that Iridium had 39,000 federal voice servicer users in 2012.
Iridium plans to replace its existing constellation in 2015 with new satellites that will support higher but unspecified data rates, machine-to-machine communications and a system that can track aircraft anywhere in the world using GPS-based technology the FAA is building into its Next Generation Air Transportation System.
Iridium said its DISA gateway contract will support the new satellites.