Italian media to tour US antennas like those at controversial Sicily site
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 24, 2014
NAPLES, Italy — State Department and Navy officials will give Italian media a tour of two antenna ground stations in the United States this week in an attempt to allay local fears surrounding a similar site nearing completion in Sicily, officials said.
The trip concerns the Mobile User Objective System, a narrowband satellite communication system that employs dish antennas at four worldwide sites to relay secure voice and data communications to military networks and mobile receivers resembling smartphones. The group will tour the two U.S. sites, one in Chesapeake, Va., and the other in Wahiawa, Hawaii. A fourth site is in Australia.
“It’s a good opportunity to be able to highlight precisely the big picture of the system itself,” said Steven A. Davis, a spokesman for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, which oversees the system.
The Sicily site remains the only one of the four that is not operational. Located in the small town of Niscemi, about 45 miles southwest of the U.S. Navy base in Sigonella, the site has been the target of protests since construction began in 2011.
Protesters fear electromagnetic radiation from the three large dishes, each 60 feet in diameter and mounted on 53-foot pedestals, will harm residents and increase cancer rates. Others decry the involvement of the U.S. military in the region.
Sicilian governor Rosario Crocetta stopped the construction after winning elections in March 2013. An Italian court reversed his decision in July, a week after Italy’s national institute of health released a report calling the risks of the station “negligible.”
Work on the site resumed in October, and construction is now largely completed, with all three dishes mounted on the pedestals. Davis said the site is undergoing testing before becoming operational in fiscal 2015. The antennas will join other communications equipment at the site, known as a Naval Radio Transmitting Facility.
The U.S. tour will highlight the communities around the antenna stations in Virginia and Hawaii, Davis said. The group will begin with a visit to the Pentagon before traveling to Virginia and then Hawaii. The tour will end March 5, Davis said.
Reporters from national outlets La Repubblica, La Stampa and RAI News are among participants, as well as representatives from local outlets La Sicilia and Antenna Sicilia. Davis said the tour was not spurred by any one event.
“It’s not in response to anything particularly. It’s just a good opportunity — the timing was opportune to invite folks over and then get a clear picture themselves about the operations and the local communities in the U.S.”
Two of the five MUOS satellites have already been launched, with another scheduled for this year. The system is considered the next generation for military UHF communications, providing cellular-like service to troops on the ground.
The system was developed by General Dynamics C4 Systems, with Lockheed-Martin as the prime contractor. The Navy will operate the system, and each service will be responsible for acquiring the mobile devices as they see fit, Davis said.
The antenna sites in Australia, Virginia and Hawaii were completed between 2012 and 2013 and turned over to the Navy in January. The Sicily site remains the final ground piece and a necessary part of the full system, he said.
“You’re not going to have true worldwide coverage without the Niscemi site being operational,” he said.
Workers lift an antenna dish onto its pedestal during construction of the Mobile User Objective System ground site in Niscemi, Sicily, in January 2014. The next-generation communication system is designed to provide secure, cellular-like voice and data signal to military networks and troops worldwide.