A multi-billion-dollar opportunity to outfit the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps with modern smartphone gadgetry has sparked a flourish of advertising activity in the nation’s capitol, as beltway contractors and consumer telecom giants work to woo a massive new customer: the Pentagon.
Military officials heading to work this week may have noticed that phone service provider AT&T has bought nearly every advertisement in the Pentagon metro station. Korean electronics giant Samsung hosted a grand opening of its new federal solutions center at 700 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, in the District’s Eastern Market neighborhood, where it has set up a high-tech center to promote how its smartphones, tablets and cameras could be applied to the work of the military.
They are both chasing after the Next Generation Enterprise Networks contract, a multi-billion-dollar contract to modernize military hardware.
Since 2013 that work has been handled by the federal arm of Hewlett Packard, now part of a company called DXC Technologies. AT&T is teaming with DXC for a re-competed contract. A federal IT company known as CSRA, which is now a part of General Dynamics, has also expressed interest. And a four-company team consisting of Verizon, Reston-based Leidos, Unisys and IBM have announced they will team up on a bid. An award is expected by year’s end.
Eastern Market, a quiet residential neighborhood at the foot of Capitol Hill, may seem an odd starting point for Samsung’s federal ambitions. Companies seeking military business usually flock to Virginia’s Crystal City or Arlington, where they have closer access to the Pentagon.
Chris Balcik, vice president of federal government sales at Samsung, said his company started scoping locations for an expanded D.C. presence early last year, and they wanted to be close to U.S. lawmakers. The company has done business with the U.S. military for about five years, he says, but it has yet to win a major long-term contract.
“The reason we’re here is to be close to that building,” he said, pointing to the U.S. Capitol, which is visible over the treetops from the company’s sixth-floor suite.
The office has the smooth, high-tech feel commonly associated with Apple’s consumer storefronts, with a certain patriotic bent built into its advertising strategy. There are screens everywhere. Government buyers stepping off the elevator are greeted by a gigantic, animated American flag proudly waving on the ceiling, and another on the wall around the corner.
Overlooking the Capitol is a life-size mannequin decked out in full camouflage, a Samsung tablet strapped to its right leg and a “ruggedized” smartphone display on its chest. Balcik says the smartphone can be configured to integrate with sensor feeds and mapping data, or to select targets for air or artillery strikes -- “putting metal on target” as Balcik puts it.
“People still see [a smart-phone] as sort of a toy, but we actually have a lot of capability built into these devices,” he said.
It’s part of a broader federal push for Samsung, a Korean electronics giant that does business with the U.S. military through its U.S. subsidiary. The company is teaming with an unnamed federal systems integrator to bid on the NGEN contract.
For the Navy, it’s part of a broader effort to incorporate commercial technology into military operations. For more than a century, the technological pre-eminence of the U.S. armed forces has been driven by specialized government labs. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, known as DARPA, is responsible for one of the earliest iterations of the Internet, known as “Arpa-net” at the time.
In the past 20 years consumer tech companies like Apple, Samsung and Huawei have led a consumer tech revolution that has put smartphones and tablets in the hands of more than 2 billion consumers, including working adults and children.
But the military faces unique obstacles as it tries to adapt those devices for its own use. Consumer gadgets that report back data to device manufacturers or others can be problematic for the military; the U.S. military has been reviewing its rules for FitBit use, for example, after the devices were found to be revealing troops' location online. And U.S. military leaders are concerned that devices with foreign components in them could introduce cyber vulnerabilities; the Pentagon recently banned the purchase of phones made by Chinese manufacturer Huawei.
Balcik says his company is adding unique sign-in solutions that step beyond the security provisions on Samsung’s consumer phones, hoping to help military operators slip under their enemies' electronic surveillance efforts.
“We want to make sure that Samsung is part of the solution," he said, "not part of the problem.”