WASHINGTON — The military’s demand for satellite internet was a topic of interest last week at the U.S. Army’s largest annual trade show.

“What we heard is the need for resiliency and agility,” said Ray Lindenmayer, director of business development at Intelsat, a global satellite operator. 

With the Army as the military’s biggest user of satellite services, providers like Intelsat are eager to meet the demand, especially for improving connectivity for mobile users.

The Army wants seamless access to satellites in various orbits, so if one network goes down, others instantly take over. “They don’t want single points of failure,”  Lindenmayer told SpaceNews

“The ability to decentralize their command and control is a big deal, and that requires communications to support it,” he said. 

New initiative: ‘multi orbit modem’

The problem for global network users like the Army is that satellite systems don’t talk to each other like cellular services, and don’t all run on the same piece of hardware. 

So the Army is trying workarounds to get easier access to satellite internet providers operating in low, medium and geostationary orbits.

The Army’s Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems (PEO EIS) recently announced plans to upgrade satellite modems at regional hubs that manage network traffic so they are compatible with multiple carriers. 

Under a separate effort, the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command is doing market research on a multi-orbit modem for mobile users. Industry white papers were due in late August. 

“This modem, in one box, is supposed to be able to talk to all the military and commercial satellites,” Lindenmayer said. “It’s like a Swiss army knife for satellite services.”

Intelsat is working with other satellite operators and hardware suppliers to put together a solution for a multi-orbit modem, Lindenmayer said. 

The modem has to be compatible with an Army “plug and play” interface adapter known as CMOSS that is installed on Humvees and other battlefield vehicles. A CMOSS box has card slots so it can be configured to run communications, navigation, command-and-control, and other radio services. 

The multi-orbit modem requires a contractor to serve as an integrator — able to adapt the proprietary network software and protocols from different providers and create a modem that is compatible with the CMOSS standard so it can slide into the slot, he said. 

“We brought in a bunch of partners and we are trying to put together the most simplified solution for that box,” Lindenmayer said. 

Intelsat provides communications services from geostationary satellites and resells services from low Earth orbit networks like Starlink and OneWeb. The company also is considering building a constellation in medium Earth orbit to augment capacity. 

“Our corporation is pivoting to a multi-orbit mentality. So when we see a proposal like the multi-orbit modem, it’s in line with what we’re doing,” he added.

Difficulties integrating services

According to the Army’s request for white papers, the multi-orbit modem has to be able to communicate over multiple satellites and orbits simultaneously. “A systems integrator will need to work with multiple waveform vendors in porting their proprietary solutions into the multi-orbit modem.”

If satellite operators agreed to common standards, said Lindenmayer, there would not be a need to build a complex modem to plug into the CMOSS box. “You would only have one piece of hardware and all the software waveforms would work,” he added. The issue is that companies closely guard their technology and don’t want to share their proprietary waveforms in a software based method “without the government paying for it.”

Integrated services would make it easier to deal with emergencies such as when there’s a network outage and the military needs to move users to other networks quickly.

Making that switch today can take weeks, said Lindenmayer. If an Army gateway site lost its connection to a military satcom network and wanted to move communications over to Intelsat, it would have to switch all its equipment to be able to talk to Intelsat’s gateway. 

That changeover is done through a process called Satellite Access Request (SAR) and Gateway Access Request (GAR). Getting the necessary approvals and equipment to do this can take 30 to 60 days. 

The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit is working with several commercial companies to figure out ways to connect networks that operate in different orbits and frequencies but concepts are only in the early phases. 

Intelsat is working with Aalyria, one of the companies selected by DIU for the hybrid network project. A startup spun off from Google, Aalyria developed network management software that links low Earth orbit and geostationary satellites. Intelsat recently announced it made a financial commitment in Aalyria’s free space optics technology to transfer data at high speeds. 

Fully managed satcom services

The Army, meanwhile, also is experimenting with fully outsourced satcom services.

The Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T) on Sept. 29 announced it selected Intelsat and SES Space & Defense for a pilot program called “satcom as a managed service.”

“The intent of the pilot is to inform decisions on the Army’s potential use of commercially leased satcom network services that would be flexible and tailorable, versus procuring, fielding, sustaining and modernizing the equipment in house,” said the PEO C3T office. 

The value of the contracts awarded to Intelsat and SES were not disclosed. They include six months of end-to-end managed subscription services to support connectivity to commercial teleports around the globe, with options to extend services for an additional six months. 

This is a new business model, Lindenmayer said. The Army traditionally has had one organization that buys the hardware, and another that procures the service, “and sometimes they didn’t all mesh together,” he said. “So the idea is to provide a one stop shop, and they’re testing that idea to see if they can make it work.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...