DoD eager to leverage LEO broadband constellations

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High-speed internet remains an elusive dream for U.S. soldiers in the field and sailors at sea relying on slow and spotty satellite connections.

As the demand for mobile connectivity continues to rise across the U.S. military, huge constellations of internet satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) are taking to the skies, and more are on the cusp of deployment.

The U.S. Defense Department for decades has relied on geosynchronous (GEO) communications satellites stationed 36,000 kilometers above the equator. The military also is a major customer of the Iridium LEO constellation that provides satellite phone and narrowband data transmission services.

Military users are now hungry for low-latency, broadband services from the likes of OneWeb, SpaceX, Telesat and Amazon that promise to connect the world via thousands of satellites in much lower orbits than traditional comsats.

The U.S. Space Force is laying the groundwork for DoD to start acquiring services from commercial LEO satcom providers that are now entering the market, and from future constellations that have not yet been deployed.

Rendering of a OneWeb broadband satellite. Credit: OneWeb

The Commercial Satellite Communication Office, known as CSCO, in September released a draft request for proposals for “Proliferated Low Earth Orbit Satellite-based Commercial Services.” A final RFP is expected in spring 2022 and contract awards later in the year.

CSCO Director Clare Grason told SpaceNews the LEO satcom procurement is part of a larger Space Force effort to change how the government buys commercial space services.

The draft RFP drew about 20 responses, she said. This feedback will inform the final RFP and the long-term procurement strategy.

The plan is to select multiple vendors that will compete for up to $875 million worth of orders over 10 years under so-called indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts. Grason said this type of contract gives government buyers flexibility to upgrade services as providers add new capabilities, and to on-ramp emerging players as they enter the market.

CSCO procures satcom services for the entire Defense Department so it needs multiple options to suit the needs of diverse customers, Grason said.

Increasingly, the military needs broadband access in the field so units deployed around the world can share information, conduct virtual training exercises, practice remote medicine and other such tasks that require greater bandwidth and low latency. While some DoD users will want predefined fee-forservice plans like those offered by cellphone companies, “we’re also looking for really creative ways to bring in proliferated LEO and other capabilities,” Grason said.

Among the options being discussed are partnerships where the government gets exclusive access to a portion of a commercial constellation. “We’re talking with some companies that are deploying or have plans to deploy thousands of satellites, and to operate the system as a federated network,” Grason said. “The government could essentially acquire its own constellation within a constellation and manage it with a level of autonomy that we haven’t had before with commercial partnerships.”

Grason said the PLEO solicitation is being written to allow industry broad leeway to propose nontraditional approaches. “We’re very interested in those kinds of advanced concepts that enable DoD to take advantage of the latest and greatest technology the industry is rolling out without us having to resource these new systems ourselves.”

If vendors are willing to propose innovative types of deals, “we’re excited to evaluate them,” said Grason. A federated network concept is “especially intriguing if industry is willing to propose in that fashion. I think there would be a healthy consideration from the DoD on that approach.”

The idea is to establish “strategic relationships” with the satcom industry like those that DoD has had for years with the nation’s major telecommunications carriers, she said.

DoD solicitations typically dictate what vendors need to propose. For the PLEO program, “we’re approaching this a little differently, almost providing a blank canvas to industry to propose the most creative ways or versatile ways that we can access your service.”

NEED FOR MULTI-ORBIT SERVICES

Agreements with LEO companies will be one piece of a broader strategy to give military users options to buy services that combine satellites in geosynchronous, medium and low orbits.

For decades DoD has leased satcom capacity on commercial GEO satellites and has been slow to transition to managed-service models favored by the industry. CSCO today runs more than 130 active commercial satcom contracts on behalf of different DoD organizations. This mishmash of contracts is highly inefficient, said Grason, as it does not allow DoD to take advantage of its collective buying power.

Grason said the CSCO wants to move away from individual transponder leases and offer DoD buyers a menu of options so they can decide, based on their budgets, what type of service they want or whether they want to have a role in actually operating the satellites themselves.

“We do have a strategic plan underway to aggregate commonly needed capability, procure those services from an inventory of services from all orbits and terrestrial,” she said. “We’ll set up a thoughtful acquisition strategy that will facilitate competition.”

Hughes Network Systems and OneWeb won a U.S. Air Force contract to demonstrate satcom services in the Arctic region. Credit: OneWeb

One of the LEO megaconstellations that will be competing for Space Force contracts is OneWeb. After emerging from bankruptcy late last year with new financial backing from the U.K. government and private investors, OneWeb has deployed more than 350 satellites and is on a path to complete its planned constellation of 648 by the end of next year.

The company has been actively pursuing partnerships and distribution agreements, and has inked deals with AT&T, Hughes Network Systems, Peraton, Leonardo DRS and others. More deals will be announced in the near future, said Dylan Browne, head of OneWeb’s government business.

Under the agreement with Hughes, OneWeb will demonstrate managed satcom services in the Arctic region for the Air Force Research Laboratory.

OneWeb has set a long-term goal of earning approximately one-third of its revenues from government customers, Browne said.

A challenge for LEO providers in the DoD market is the ground equipment, Browne said. Electronically steered antennas needed to communicate with fast moving LEO satellites are expensive and can be a hurdle to the adoption of LEO services.

OneWeb supplies its own terminals but has also teamed with antenna manufacturer Kymeta to develop a terminal for the DoD market that can talk to LEO and GEO satellites.

Although LEO providers are motivated to sell their own products, the reality is that LEO is not a “single solution” and DoD wants integrated services from all orbits and frequencies, Browne said.

“There’s a tremendous interest in LEO,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a fad at all. But I think it’s harder for legacy satellite operators to interoperate together, and it’s easier for a new entrant like OneWeb to build on existing technology to be able to be interoperable.”

A key concern for DoD and allies is resilience, Browne said. “They want to have multiple choices. That necessitates us having user terminals that can work with OneWeb but potentially with other networks.”

MORE LEO COMPETITORS

SpaceX so far has launched 1,740 Starlink broadband satellites and is proceeding with plans to build a network of nearly 12,000. The company, which is targeting the consumer broadband market, has signed cooperative agreements with the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army to experiment how the network would perform in military applications.

The company paused satellite launches over the summer to work on optical intersatellite links, a key requirement to serve the government market. Laser terminals that connect satellites are needed to provide services where ground networks are not available such as over oceans, and to move data to specific locations where customers want it downloaded.

OneWeb has been working to penetrate the U.S. defense market since coming back from bankruptcy. Credit: OneWeb

Optical links “will be important for government and defense customers that want optionality on how to route and land their data,” said a Morgan Stanley research note. The U.S. government, for example, uses Iridium’s cross-linked network to land sensitive traffic at a dedicated gateway in Hawaii.

Another LEO player preparing to enter the broadband market is Canadian satellite operator Telesat with a planned $5 billion constellation of 298 satellites built by Thales Alenia Space.

“We expect our first satellite launch roughly two years from now,” said Tom Eaton, Telesat’s vice president of international sales. Services in high latitude and polar areas will be available in the first half of 2024 and full global service is projected for the first half of 2025. Telesat named its network Lightspeed.

“Absolutely we see the DoD as a customer and we are going to be active in trying to line up contracts,” said Eaton.

“We’re in a different position from the other LEOs,” he said. That’s because Telesat is designing its network with government needs in mind, Eaton added. “For several years and even today we’re working very closely with the DoD and other government customers on exactly what the requirements are.”

“The U.S. government wants to be operating at very high speeds, taking data from its origin and dropping it off to where it needs to be,” he said.

To support multi-orbit connectivity, Telesat has partnered with inflight connectivity specialist Anuvu to develop an antenna for LEO and GEO communications, said Eaton. “But we’re not going to require the DoD or other customers to buy a specific terminal to operate on the network,” he said. The plan is to release the modem and waveform specs to DoD’s terminal manufacturers so they can update terminals to be interoperable with Lightspeed.

Telesat’s traditional business model for its GEO satellites has been to work through network distributors and integrators but with the LEO network it plans to offer services directly to the end users, said Eaton. “That’s not to jump over our current set of customers but this is a completely different service from anything we’ve ever done before.”

A LEO network is “a lot more complex than the GEO service so launching into this without really understanding what the end user wants is something we wanted to avoid,” he added.

A fourth competitor poised to build a LEO internet constellation is Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which received FCC approval last year for a network of 3,236 satellites estimated to cost $10 billion. The company announced it will launch its first two prototype satellites in late 2022 on an ABL Space RS1 small rocket. Amazon also signed a launch agreement with United Launch Alliance to deploy the constellation aboard Atlas 5 rockets. Amazon declined to comment on Project Kuiper’s plans for the U.S. defense market.

Satellite operator SES, meanwhile, is making a big push in the government market offering satcom from medium Earth orbit (MEO), with faster connections than those provided by GEO satellites.

“LEO has attractive features but there are advantages of MEO,” said Peter Hoene, president and CEO of SES Government Solutions, “MEO is a non-congested orbit. We’re the only ones out there.”

SES operates around 50 satellites in geostationary orbit plus 20 O3b broadband MEO satellites about 8,000 kilometers above the equator.

Starting in 2022, SES will start launching new MEO satellites made by Boeing called mPOWER. These will provide a faster and more automated broadband service aimed at commercial and government customers, said Hoene. The company plans to deploy 11 mPOWER satellites by 2025.

Meanwhile, Boeing received FCC approval Nov. 3 for a constellation of 147 non-geostationary broadband satellites.

GEOS WANT TO WORK WITH LEOS

In the satcom world, “LEO is definitely the bright shiny object, and in the DoD everybody’s enamored with LEO,” said David Micha, vice president and general manager of Intelsat General Communications.

Intelsat, which is currently emerging from bankruptcy restructuring, operates a fleet of 72 GEO satellites but plans to jump into the LEO broadband business.

“I don’t think as a company you can be a one-trick pony anymore,” Micha said. “We have been traditionally a GEO company but as we go forward and we work to support the DoD, we all realize that from a warfighting perspective, you need to be multi orbit.”

Micha said he could not discuss details of the company’s strategy to provide non-GEO satcom as it has not yet been finalized. “Whether we build an NGSO [non-geostationary] constellation or partner with somebody to do it, we absolutely are going to be a multi-orbit, multi-band, multi-layer company,” he said.

DoD customers are interested in satcom as a managed service, which forces traditional satellite operators to rethink their business models, Micha said. “As we move forward, I see Intelsat as much more of an integrator than as just a bandwidth provider.”

Another GEO satellite operator, Inmarsat (soon to be acquired by rival Viasat), recently announced plans to add LEO satellites to its global fleet of 14 spacecraft in GEO and in highly elliptical orbits. The company said it is investing $100 million over the next five years to lay the groundwork for the deployment of as many as 175 LEO satellites.

Satcom integrators that currently work with the Defense Department said military customers are expressing growing interest in internet constellations and in adding LEO services into a multi-orbit architecture. Integrators like Peraton and Leonardo DRS specialize in hybrid networks that combine services from space and terrestrial communications systems.

David Fields, senior vice president and general manager of global enterprise solutions at Leonardo DRS, said DoD solicitations for satcom services are changing in response to the rapid evolution of the industry.

“In the past 30 years, everything’s been GEO,” he said. There have been advances in ground systems and antennas but the space segment has been the same. With all these new constellations entering the market, “what we hear from the government is that they want to make sure there’s provisions in the contract to allow the customer to move to the next generation of capability without having to redo the contract.”

The reduced latency of LEO systems is one critical feature DoD users want, he said. “And there’s going to be an amount of bandwidth that’s available that the government hasn’t seen in the past.”

Nate White, Peraton’s vice president and general manager of communications, said the mobile satcom offered by LEO systems could bring dramatic changes to the quality of life of troops in the field and on ships at sea.

“You’re going to be able to connect a ship with as much as a gigabit per second of connectivity while at sea,” he said. “Now you start talking about maybe giving sailors livestreaming over Netflix.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.