Q&A | Intelsat General’s Skot Butler on EpicNG and selling bandwidth to DoD
A Q&A with Skot Butler, President, Intelsat General Corp.
A decade after leaving a business development job at a defense contractor to join Intelsat General Corp., Skot Butler was promoted in March to president of IGC. A wholly owned subsidiary of satellite-fleet operator Intelsat, IGC provides satellite-communications solutions to military, commercial and government customers.
Butler replaced the plain-spoken Kay Sears, who finished her 10-year tenure at the tail end of a decline in U.S. government bandwidth spending that tracks the military’s shrinking footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Butler now gets a chance to come in at a trough and build, rather than manage a decline, as Sears had to do.
He’s also taking over just as Intelsat’s Epic-generation of Ku-band high-throughput satellites begin to enter service. Intelsat 29e launched in late January and entered service over North and South America at the end of March. Intelsat 33e launched in August, but is not expected to enter service over Africa and Asia until early 2017 due to a thruster malfunction that will delay its arrival on station.
Butler spoke with SpaceNews editor-in-chief Brian Berger a week before heading to London for the Global Milsatcom conference.
A satellite’s projected capabilities and demonstrated capabilities aren’t always the same. Have there been any surprises in what the EpicNG satellite can deliver?
Generally, Intelsat 29e has over-performed based on projections. We are very pleased. Nothing about the technology is disappointing or problematic.
What has your testing to date entailed?
Intelsat General has tested more than 10 small, tactical terminals, ranging in size from 45 centimeters to 1.3 meters on IS-29e, and achieved efficiencies up to 2.8 bps/Hz. This is an improvement of two- to three-times over what we have seen on typical wide-beam satellites. Next-generation ground modems being rolled out in 2017 are expected to achieve efficiencies up to 3.5 bps/Hz on EpicNG-class satellites.
We have also tested a 15-centimeter terminal on a Class 3 unmanned aerial vehicle -— think remotely piloted aircraft small enough to fit it a shipping container — and achieved 3.9 Mbps, a more than threefold increase. Finally, we’ve successfully tested the Protected Tactical Waveform (PTW) on IS-29e. The next challenge is defining the cost and concept of operations for commercial service. The Global Hawk satcom package was coupled with a PTW modem and operated in real time across multiple transponders on Intelsat H-1 satellite. This test validated that PTW — on existing, wideband Ku-band satellites — can provide up to 500 MHz of jamming protection. That’s a significant improvement over the standard 36 or 72 MHz provided in the single transponder mode of operation.
We also have both transition and new services coming online with Intelsat 33e once it is ready for service in the first quarter of 2017. These are both fixed-ground and mobility applications.
Are there any milestones coming up that will show us the extent of the Defense Department’s appetite for EpicNG bandwidth?
We do not publicize projections based on market segments we serve. We do have some customers who have told us that they are ready to use this as soon as it comes on-station. Some of this will be new service, and some will be existing service transitioning off of wideband and onto the Epic platform. Based on a lot of government requirements, existing ones must wait for re-competed government contracts or contract options. Because of this, we are focused on new service.
Now that Inmarsat has finally been declared the winner of the U.S. Navy’s Commercial Broadband Satellite Program Satellite Service (CSSC), how much longer will Intelsat General be providing the service?
There is an extension for a few more months with our piece of it. I cannot comment on the turn-on of the new service.
After an extended decline, Intelsat’s government revenue grew two percent during the three months ending Sept. 30. Should we expect a dip as the CSSC work comes to an end?
We have expected this and have been working hard to find business to take its place. We see some strong opportunities in the fourth quarter that will help to smooth this out. We are hyper-focused on mobility — and specifically aero — as there are requirements that are growing, compared to other sectors. We also saw the compression caused by budget sequestration and also pricing pressure —not just in government, but the overall satcom market. We feel good about EpicNG and the managed services we plan to build around this, as well as en-route and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services to drive new business.
As you look out a few years, do you see Ka-band having a big impact on DoD business?
That has been a question for a number of years. It depends on the platform, and it is clear that the government is indicating that Ka will be used. Then there are cases like the installed base, where changing does not make sense. This applies to the Predator and Reaper UAVs. I think that we will see more multi-band capabilities to give the user more choices. The Air Force’s Wideband Analysis of Alternatives focuses on a possible a one-to-one WGS replacement, or some government-owned replacement system that is more nimble and will include commercial, to give the government more flexibility and a greater ability to move around in a more seamless fashion. This will apply to moving between military satcom and commercial satcom, as well as between commercial satcom systems. There will be greater focus on a more enterprise-like system that is based on the mission. I think to this end, we will see more multi-band sorts of capabilities.
Intelsat General and its competitors have positioned commercial-satellite communications services as a good way for the Defense Department to achieve “resiliency” for all its space capabilities. Does DoD seem to be buying the argument?
The only thing we can point to directly is the Wideband Analysis of Alternatives that’s in process. The Air Force is asking that we show them how commercial can play a significant role, but not all of the role. No particular architecture is on or off the table. The government is looking to use commercial in any way where it can work across capabilities. The Air Force’s commercial satcom acquisition Pathfinder and future-technology-oriented pilot programs are looking at how this would work. Government leaders are serious — and with resilience being a buzzword, that is important. Even with cost still being a factor, commercial will continue as a part of resilience. We can be a good, reliable partner — and can be better if we know our place in the overall architecture. We have pushed hard on including this with the single-acquisition agent, which is not something I recall industry ever asking for. Currently, the Defense Information Systems Agency procures most commercial capacity to meet end-user requirements, while the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center procures military assets to meet these requirements. The commercial industry needs a single office where commercial and military satellite capabilities come together. Although DISA and SMC are cooperating more than ever, there is still no way to seamlessly allocate military requirements between commercial and military assets.
IGC seems to have made some progress under the Obama administration in terms of changing the way the the Pentagon works with commercial-satellite operators. Are you back to square one after the election?
I wish I had a crystal ball. I really hope we are not. I think that our area of the world does not get that level of attention, as we are relatively small beans. There’s been enough of a shift that I don’t think we will lose that progress. The civilian and military leadership have a cooperative relationship with comercial satcom operators. That pays good dividends into the future and it pays good dividends now, like the commercial integration cell, where fleet operators (including Intelsat) share spacecraft position information with the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center.
There may be some holdouts who believe they have to own and control everything. But I think that future is not realistic, especially with costs and resiliency being important. It becomes obvious that we have to work together.
We don’t know what personnel changes the next U.S. president will make on the civilian side, but on the uniformed side, Gen. John Hyten just moved to Strategic Command and Gen. John Raymond succeed him at Space Command. Does this suggest a continuity?
Absolutely. As an industry, and as a company, we have a lot of respect for Gen. Raymond. He has engaged with industry and thinks a lot like Gen. Hyten. We are excited that he is taking this role and we expect no changes. The next level down from Raymond, many new people need to be exposed and may experience some change. I think that Gen. Raymond’s commander’s intent memo was just released, and, here, we can get a peak under the covers. While the commander’s intent is not long on specifics, the references to the role of commercial as a partner, combined with the Hyten’s Space Enterprise Vision — which has resiliency as a core tenet — paint a favorable picture for continued engagement and support from his command on things like the commercialization of WGS flight operations and the Air Force Satellite Control Network.
Any final thoughts?
The future prospects of commercial satcom meeting government and DoD needs is bright. While we can’t wait for activities like the Wideband Analysis of Alternatives to conclude, and procurement decisions to be made, commercial moves quickly to meet emerging demands across our user segments, government and otherwise. The good news is that more capable and more flexible satellites and satellite services are constantly being built and launched — with or without a contracted government requirement. Could we move even faster and more deliberately, of course. But, flexible designs mean we can more easily and rapidly react to changes in user demand, be that by moving coverage, mitigating interference, or offering service-model options which provide users choices in how they buy.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.