A multi-billion dollar opportunity to equip the US Navy and the Marine Corps with modern smartphone devices has sparked a brisk campaign in the country's capital, as contractors and telecom companies in major cities court a huge new customer: the Pentagon.
Military officials heading to work this week may have noticed that AT & T bought almost every ad in the Pentagon subway station. Korean electronics giant Samsung held a grand opening of its new Federal Solutions Center at 700 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, in the district's eastern market district, where a high-tech center has been set up to promote how its smartphones, tablets and cameras can be used in the work of the military.
Both are pursuing the Next Generation Enterprise Networks agreement, a multi-billion dollar contract to modernize military hardware.
Since 2013, this work is taken over by the federal branch Hewlett Packard, which today belongs to DXC Technologies. AT & T is working with DXC for a renewed competition. A federal IT company called CSRA, now part of General Dynamics, has also expressed interest. A four-company team, consisting of Verizon, Reston, Leidos, Unisys and IBM, has announced that they will merge into one offering. An award is expected by the end of the year.
Eastern Market, a quiet residential area at the foot of Capitol Hill, may be a strange starting point for Samsung's federal aspirations. Companies looking for a military business usually flock to Virginia's Crystal City or Arlington, where they get closer to the Pentagon.
Chris Balcik, Samsung's vice president of federal government sales, said his company started looking for locations for an expanded DC presence early last year, and they wanted to be close to US legislators. The company had been doing business with the US military for about five years, he said, but had not yet managed to win a significant long-term contract.
"The reason we're here is to be near the building," he said, pointing to the US Capitol, which is visible above the treetops on the company's sixth floor.
The office has the smooth, high-tech feel usually associated with Apple's stores, with a certain patriotic bent built into its advertising strategy. There are screens everywhere. Government buyers as they emerge from the elevator are greeted by a gigantic, animated American flag proudly blowing on the ceiling and another on the wall around the corner.
Overlooking the Capitol is a fully camouflaged, life-sized mannequin, a Samsung tablet on the right leg and a "sturdy" smartphone display on the chest. Balcik says the smartphone can be configured to integrate with sensor feeds and mapping data or select targets for aerial or artillery attacks – "Put metal on the target," Balcik says.
"People are still seeing [a smart-phone] as a kind of toy, but we actually have a lot of capabilities built into these devices, "he said.
It's part of a larger federal boost for Samsung, a Korean electronics company that does business with the US military through its US subsidiary. The company is working with an unnamed state system integrator to bid on the NGEN contract.
For the Navy, it is part of a broader effort to integrate commercial technology into military operations. For more than a century, the technological hegemony of US forces has been driven by specialized state laboratories. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example DARPA, is responsible for one of the earliest iterations of the Internet, which at the time was called "Arpa-net".
Over the last 20 years, consumer tech companies such as Apple, Samsung and Huawei have led a revolution in consumer tech that has brought smartphones and tablets to more than 2 billion consumers, including working adults and children.
The military, however, faces unique obstacles when trying to customize these devices for its own use. Consumer gadgets that report data to device manufacturers or other people can be problematic for the military. The US military has reviewed its rules for using FitBit, for example, after it has been determined that the devices are displaying the location of troops online. And the US military leaders fear that devices with third-party components could cause cyber vulnerabilities. The Pentagon has recently banned the purchase of phones from Chinese manufacturer Huawei.
Balcik says its company is adding unique sign-on solutions that go beyond the security provisions of Samsung mobile phones and hope to help military operators break through the electronic surveillance of their enemies.
"We want to make sure that Samsung is part of the solution," he said, "not part of the problem."