iPhone satellite connectivity
iPhone 14 smartphones are able to communicate with Globalstar satellites, primarily for emergency messaging. Credit: Apple

WASHINGTON — The technology race to connect cellphones to satellite networks has not gone unnoticed by the Defense Department.

“That capability is exciting to us,” Clare Grason, head of the Pentagon’s commercial satellite communications office, said Feb. 28. 

Emerging communications services that connect phones directly to satellites are attractive to military users that operate in locations where there is no cellular network connectivity, Grason said during a FedInsider webinar.

“This would enable the DoD to equip warfighters with smaller, lighter, more capable and inexpensive communication devices,” she said. “Some of the architectures will enable existing smartphones to seamlessly communicate with satellites using cellular spectrum.” 

Grason’s office, known as CSCO, is working on a solicitation for direct-to-device satellite communications services to be released later this year. “This is something for the industry to keep their eyes open for,” she said. The CSCO is also seeking feedback from military users. “We’re in the market research stage,” Grason said. 

A number of companies have entered the direct-to-cell race, including Iridium, Lynk Global, AST SpaceMobile, Samsung, Globalstar and others.

Contracts coming for PLEO and micro GEO

Grason said DoD is looking to diversify the types of satellite communications services it buys from the private sector. 

As early as May, the CSCO plans to award contracts for satcom services provided by low Earth orbit internet companies. Multiple bids were received in November, said Grason. “We are wrapping up the source selection.” 

LEO satcom is a departure from the traditional geosynchronous (GEO) communications satellite services. Grason said military users are demanding low-latency, broadband services from the likes of OneWeb, SpaceX and Amazon.

DoD also is interested in LEO satcom services and those provided by small GEO satellites

DoD will still continue to rely on GEO services, said Grason. “LEO is great but I don’t think it is the most important regime.  I think all orbits have important attributes that the DoD needs to take advantage of.”

There is also growing interest in satcom services that use small GEO satellites, such as those offered by Astranis

“That’s one of the innovations taking place in GEO,” Grason said. “Micro-GEO is one-tenth the size of traditional GEO birds and we are seeing those as having an advantage for the DoD, and we want to set up contract vehicles to access the capabilities.”

She said her office is making an effort to work with as broad a sector of the market as possible. “A lot of times the inhibitor to taking advantage of what the commercial marketplace has to offer is the bureaucracy,” he said. “CSCO is trying to take that burden away by having very flexible contract vehicles ready to go.”

Military satcom vs commercial

Grason said DoD will always own and operate its own communication satellites but that capacity is limited and often restricted to “priority” users, whereas commercial services are accessible for any military customer able to pay for them. 

Military satcom is subject to a “prioritization scheme,” she said. “Missions that are toward the bottom of that hierarchy, they don’t simply have access to capability when they may need it. By contrast, commercial satcom is pay to play. If you have funding and there is an availability in the commercial sector, we can facilitate a deal for you.”

Grason said commercial companies offer managed services that give customers autonomy over how the network is operated. “That arrangement has been very attractive, particularly for the customers who don’t quite have the rank on that prioritization scheme,” she said. 

DoD continues to buy a substantial amount of “transponded” capacity under leasing arrangements with commercial satcom operators, “but over time, that approach will lessen as commercial industry will not be selling access to their systems by the megahertz,” Grason said.

Newer systems like SpaceX’s Starlink do not lease capacity but provide full services under agreements similar to what DoD currently has with Iridium. “How you buy it is going to help determine how efficient you are in using what you have acquired,” she added.

The U.S. Army is now reviewing proposals for managed satcom services and will conduct a pilot program, said Grason. “Based on the outcome of that pilot program, the intent is to issue an enduring long-term contract based on the satcom-as-a-service model.” She said service packages can be tailored based on needs and budget constraints.

Before they can compete for a DoD contract, commercial satcom providers are vetted in a number ways, including their cybersecurity practices and supply chain.

“We scrutinize their financial reporting, we thoroughly investigate the condition of their supplier base, what trade sanctions perhaps are being levied on them or their network, and really a host of other commercial concerns,” said Grason. “These are all things that we weigh pretty heavily when doing business with what is essentially a multinational global supplier base.”

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...