Army Satcom Demand Expected To Soar as Smartphones Go to War

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SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. Army demand for satellite communications is growing so rapidly that it can only be satisfied by a diverse combination of commercial and government satellites offering service in all of the existing radiofrequency bands, according to industry officials who attended the Army Satcom Users Workshop in Tampa, Fla., sponsored by the Satellite Industry Association and the Army’s Warfighter Information Network-Tactical program office.

The Defense Department “can’t afford to continually launch their own constellations, manage and operate them to cover their entire requirement, so commercial satellite providers have to help,” said John Munoz Atkinson, a retired U.S. Army colonel and director of land mobile programs for Inmarsat Government Services. “The government needs to strike the appropriate balance between using their own satellites and using commercial satellites.”

During the last decade, unmanned aerial vehicles were the “killer app” for satellite communications, claiming increasing amounts of bandwidth to stream videos and relay sensor data, said Col. Patrick Rayermann, director of satellite communications integration at the Defense Department’s National Space Security Office. “The killer app for satellite communications in the next decade will be smartphones and hand-held devices,” he added.

Army officials are testing commercial smartphones for use on the battlefield. Through an effort called Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications, Army officials are evaluating the cost and merits of giving a smartphone to every soldier. While much of the information soldiers exchange through smartphones on the battlefield will be transmitted over local wireless network, some will be carried over long distances over future aerial or satellite networks, Rayermann said.

Satellite service providers will link the terrestrial networks the military uses to provide communications to local forces operating in remote areas with satellite networks. Satellite links will be essential in getting the information from local networks to the outside world and bringing information from the outside world to those local networks, Munoz Atkinson said.

“If you want mobility, you will have to match all the existing technologies to your needs at that time,” Munoz Atkinson said. “There is not one frequency band that will meet the plethora of requirements coming out of the Department of Defense. You have to mix that capability. It’s in the delicate balance of mixing the capability that you get what you want.”

One way to meet the growing demand for mobile, military satellite communications is to use current technology in an innovative manner to ensure that the next generation of satellites offers higher throughput in any frequency band: C, Ku, Ka, X, L or S, said Tom Foust, regional vice president for global network solutions at Intelsat General Corp. of Bethesda, Md.

By continuing to provide service in Ku-band, Intelsat will enable Defense Department customers to continue to rely on existing ground terminals. “There are millions of dollars worth of Ku-band equipment spread all over the world,” Foust said. “If you take advantage of the latest innovations in design to revitalize satellites in the C or Ku spectrum, you can take care of the legacy systems.”

After recently completing a three-year, $3.5 billion campaign to deploy a new fleet of satellites, Intelsat executives are drafting plans for future replacement satellites. “We are looking at all potential designs,” Foust said. “We are not necessarily committed to any one frequency band; however, we do have a large, legacy customer base for C- and Ku-band communications.”

During the last decade, commercial satellite communications technology has gone through extensive innovation driven, in part, by the demands of satellite broadband, mobile and radio firms to provide low-cost, high data rate communications, said Bill Hreha, communications mission engineering manager for Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif. Similar technology also could serve government customers seeking high data rate communications including audio and video services for mobile devices, he added.

Increasingly, government satellite communications customers are becoming aware of the technology and services commercial industry can offer. That awareness helps to spur innovation, Hreha said.

Some of that innovation can save money for the Army and other government customers, said Jim Tran, vice president of defense and federal solutions for Harris CapRock Communications. For example, when government customers work with a company that buys a lot of bandwidth, the company typically can pass on those savings to the customer.

Smaller satellite antennas and other advanced technologies also can help government agencies save money by reducing their demand for personnel. A modern 45-centimeter satellite antenna designed to be transported and operated by a single person can provide as much capability or more than an older 2.4-meter antenna that required three people to move and operate, Tran said.

Similarly, modern networks and modems can reduce communications costs because they make more efficient use of available satellite bandwidth. A new $10,000 modem might reduce overall costs by $20,000 to $30,000 because it reduces demand for satellite bandwidth, Tran said.