Pentagon to spend $20M on cellular in Baghdad

The U.S. Department of Defense has let a contract valued at about US$20 million for cellular communications systems in Baghdad and has mounted a massive logistics effort to turn on limited service in the Iraqi capital by next month, according to a Pentagon spokesman and industry sources.

The Defense Department has awarded Worldcom Inc. -- which is in the process of rebranding itself as MCI -- a contract valued at about $20 million to install a limited cellular system in Baghdad to "facilitate communications between U.S. and Iraqi authorities." The system could serve up to 10,000 users, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Ken McClellan, a Pentagon spokesman.

According to McClellan, "establishing security and safety is (the) No. 1 priority" for Paul Bremer, the new head of the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq. "The ability to communicate as a crucial tool to advance security interests, as well as humanitarian efforts," McClellan said.

Natasha Haubold, a Worldcom spokeswoman, declined to provide any details on the cellular telephone system the company plans to install in Iraq, except to say the project will meet deadlines to activate the service next month. But Mark Smith, a spokesman for the GSM Association in London, said earlier this week that Worldcom will install a system based on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard used by other countries in the Middle East.

That decision comes despite a move by Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.), who in March introduced a bill in Congress that would require the Pentagon to use the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) standard developed by San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc. The company's headquarters are near Issa's congressional district.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said it made more sense to install a GSM system instead of CDMA in Baghdad because "all the surrounding countries use GSM, which has about 80 percent of the global market."

Worldcom has tapped LM Ericsson Telephone Co. in Stockhom to supply the GSM equipment for Baghdad, which includes 17 cell towers and associated electronic equipment interconnected by microwave radio systems. Michelle French, a New York-based spokeswoman for Ericsson, declined to say whether Ericsson would supply the equipment for the Baghdad cellular system. But she acknowledged that "we have been a supplier to MCI in the past."

Worldcom has also installed a satellite earth station in Baghdad that will connect the cellular system to networks it operates for the Defense Department in the U.S., sources said. Worldcom had to ship all this equipment to Baghdad, which required a mammoth logistics effort that involved five C-5 cargo aircraft -- the largest airplane in the Air Force inventory. The cargo planes completed the equipment delivery May 16.