Legal Rulings, Protests Impede Navy Broadband Ground Station in Sicily

Sicilians protested the MUOS station along Palermo's Via Roma in April.

Sicilians protested the MUOS station along Palermo's Via Roma in April. YouTube

The State Dept. is confident an Italian court will allow construction to resume.

Legal action by the governor of  Sicily and protests that have spanned more than a year have delayed construction of a ground station essential to control the Navy’s fleet of  broadband satellites designed to provide high data communications to small shipboard and ground terminals, including Army manpack radios.

Construction of the ground station for the Navy Mobile User Objective System, or MUOS, was halted by Sicilian Governor Rosario Crocetta in March due to concerns about potential health effects of satellite uplinks. In April, 10,000 protestors blocked access to the transmitter site, which is operated by the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station in Sicily, adjacent to the small town of Niscemi.

At a Jan. 16 press conference in Rome, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he understood resistance to the ground station for health reasons. “I understand those concerns,” he said. “We have done studies to indicate that there are no -- there are no risks in terms of health as a result of that.”

Space News reported on June 21 that an Italian court was set to overrule Sicily’s governor this month, a move that would allow construction to resume on the Niscemi ground station, one of four MUOS stations, with the others located in Australia, Hawaii and Virginia. The ground stations are interconnected through a global high-speed fiber optic network.

Each ground station can access two of the five MUOS satellites, all of which are expected to have launched by 2016, with the Sicily ground station essential for communications through the constellation.

The Navy successfully launched the second MUOS satellite last Friday. Navy Capt. Paul Ghyzel, program manager at the Satellite Communications Program Office of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command told a press briefing last week that with two operational satellites, MUOS will be able to cover two-thirds of the globe.

Full coverage will come with the launch of the fourth satellite in 2015, and Space News reported that any further delays on construction on the ground station in Sicily could mean it will not be ready when MUOS goes into full operation.