Intelsat launches mobile broadband service aimed at military users

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A key target customer is the U.S. Army, the military’s largest consumer of satellite-based communications.

WASHINGTON — Intelsat General Communications announced June 15 it is launching a new mobile broadband service for military and other users that need connectivity in remote areas where there is no infrastructure.

IGC is a subsidiary of satellite operator Intelsat that focuses on the government market. The company says the new service is aimed at mobile users that currently rely on push-to-talk radios and low-bandwidth satellite communications

A key target customer is the U.S. Army, the military’s largest consumer of satellite-based communications. The Army is testing services from multiple satcom vendors as part of a broad effort to provide global broadband coverage to deployed forces. Army units in the field increasingly need bigger and faster communications pipes to transmit large volumes of data.

Intelsat’s managed-broadband service is called FlexGround Communications-On-The-Move. Compared to the company’s existing mobile satcom products, this one is different because it provides connectivity from Intelsat’s high-capacity Epic geostationary satellites but uses small laptop-size antennas, said IGC President Skot Butler.

“The on-the-move capability is for both land vehicles and for small watercraft that operate in brown water close to the shore,” Butler told SpaceNews.

“Users want smaller and smaller terminals, higher data rates and more flexible ways to buy it,” he said. Customers of the FlexGround service only pay for what they use, Butler said. “If you only deploy 10 days a month, you don’t have to buy full time satcom.”

One of the target markets for FlexGround are current users of the Inmarsat L-band BGAN (broadband global area network) service. BGAN provides a low-profile laptop-size antenna but FlexGround promises more than twice the data rate using the Ku and Ka bands.

“We transmit five megabits per second down to a terminal. And we can transmit up to two megabits per second off of the terminal,” said Butler. “L-band terminals are less than a megabit so this is pretty significant when you think about multiple users using a single terminal.”

The Army will experiment with IGC’s mobile broadband under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) for satellite communications technologies the company announced last week.

A three-year CRADA was signed with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center (C5ISR).

The C5ISR Center last month announced a similar agreement to experiment with SpaceX’s Starlink broadband service. The Army is interested in exploring the capabilities of low Earth orbit satcom like Starlink as a possible alternative to geostationary satellite broadband. Officials said latency is a major concern for the Army.

Butler said the Army and DoD are looking to build a hybrid satcom architecture using services from different vendors and from different orbits. Although GEO satellites have higher latencies than LEO because data travels longer distances, there are other factors to consider, he said.

“I think they’re going to find out, through their analysis, that there are other things that come into play that impact latency,” said Butler. “If you’re using a LEO system the travel time to the satellite may be very low, but if on the ground those signals have to go through an extensive terrestrial network, you’re going to lose some of that latency. So it’s not quite as cut and dried as we often hear it talked about.”