Fiber's newest national role: scapegoat

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Blaming the 'fiber glut' for the military's satellite-bandwidth woes is nonsense; so whose interests are served by the accusation?


In April, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story, "Modern Warfare Strains Capacity To Communicate," which insinuates that the rapid deployment of fiber optics has damaged American military preparedness. The story is based on lengthy statements made by military personnel, which shows it could not have been written without extensive cooperation from the U.S. Department of Defense. Here's the gist of the story: The DoD does not have enough satellites to serve all of its communications needs, even though the DoD planned to use commercial satellites for military communications. An Air Force colonel told the newspaper: "[U]biquitous satellite communication and unlimited bandwidth seemed the destiny of the world." The Journal claims the DoD's strategy was destroyed by the fiber industry: "In the 1990s, [the DoD] bet that by 2005 almost 1,000 new satellites would be available...the military planned to lease capacity [but]...fiber-optic cable...ruined the plan...created a bandwidth glut...the cable did not help the military, which needs wireless connections to tanks, planes, and ships...fiber optics hurt the satellite companies."

There is no reason why the Defense Dept. would want to bash the fiber industry, so perhaps bashing was not the DoD's intent. The reason for the attack on fiber lies elsewhere: The DoD and wireless industry are battling each other for control of spectrum in the 1710-1850-MHz range, currently devoted to military use. The DoD continues making a case to Congress and the White House that the spectrum used by the Pentagon is still not enough to meet military needs. WSJ's story-that the military's satellite communications are capacity-short-supports the DoD's position. Without a doubt, America's public interest is served better by having the DoD utilize the spectrum rather than placing it with a wireless industry that wants its customers to download a file or receive video while on the move in cars and trains. The Bush Administration intends to subsidize the cost of transferring the spectrum from the DoD to the private sector. The government's 2003 budget already includes $715 million for the DoD's preliminary costs, and the ultimate cost to taxpayers will exceed $30 billion if the wireless industry prevails.

The DoD is right to resist the private sector's encroachment on spectrum allocated for military use. Unfortunately, the DoD did more harm than good by helping WSJ create a wildly inaccurate story with a charge too serious to ignore: Fiber's deployment has not damaged military preparedness, a conclusion easily substantiated by considering what the story reveals and what it leaves out.

Old plan confirmed
The story reveals that the Defense Dept. expected commercial and military communications to be commingled on all commercial satellites, not just American-owned satellites. The DoD's intent to lease commercial satellites shows it was ready and waiting when China purchased a limited number of American-made commercial-purpose satellites but used them to organize and centralize military communications. In June 1998, the New York Times reported: "For two years...China's military has relied on American-made satellites sold for civilian purposes to transmit messages to its far-flung army garrisons...powerful evidence...that China's army was taking advantage of...[the] Clinton Administration," which was accused of damaging American national security. At the time, State Dept. spokesman James Rubin defended the administration: "The argument that we can block use of civilian satellite technology by the Chinese military is simply unrealistic, given the widespread availability of other satellite options around the world." The Times added: "[There is] a side benefit...American intelligence agencies [have] a better chance of intercepting China's military communications."

The WSJ story in April is evidence that the Pentagon was counting on China to commingle commercial and military communications. By early 2002, the nickel finally dropped in Beijing. According to the government-controlled newspaper Peoples Daily, China's government has banned cell phones and beepers from any military location, including airplanes, ships, decoding rooms, and missile launch sites, and ordered that sensitive information be sent over land lines. To the extent the world satellite population was restrained by the deployment of fiber networks, the technology aided rather than hindered military preparedness.

LEOS left out
The WSJ story did not mention that nearly all the "1,000 new satellites" were to be held by just two companies. In the mid-1990s, Teledesic, a Microsoft-supported company, planned to put up 840 satellites and Motorola's

Celestri project was to use 500. By 1998, Teledesic and Motorola changed their plans. Celestri disappeared and Teledesic's network was reduced to 240 satellites. The new satellites were not going to be geostationary, whereby the object sits at a fixed point relative to earth. They were to be low-earth-orbit satellites (LEOS), having relatively flat, close-to-the-horizon, variable trajectories which are hard to anticipate from an earth-based monitoring system not having global scope. Teledesic has not put a single LEOS in the sky-with good reason. The first major LEOS system that will be deployed is the "[LEOS] network [to] President Bush's planned...antiballistic missile shield, providing infrared tracking of missiles throughout their flight paths," according to a Reuter's report on TRW and Northrop Grumman, contractors for the missile shield.

If a 1,000-satellite commercial LEOS system had made it to space before the military's LEOS system, the Bush Administration's so-called Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) would be facing immense problems tracking near-earth objects and distinguishing between them. Clearly, commercial satellite systems sometimes frustrate military goals. Thus, it may have been convenient for the Defense Dept. to mask this issue by sending the Wall Street Journal on a fool's errand. But credit the fiber business with helping the DoD, not hurting it, because fiber's deployment retarded the deployment of a LEOS system that would have interfered with SDI.

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Stephen N. Brown writes on public policy in telecommunications. He can be contacted by e-mail at or telephone: (615) 399-1239.

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