Mobile Communication Revolution Requires Stronger Military-Commercial Partnership

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The world is in the midst of a mobile communications revolution. New devices and applications are appearing daily, resulting in skyrocketing demand for bandwidth and network services. In the U.S. alone, wireless data traffic grew over 100 percent last year, and today there are more than 300 million U.S. wireless devices accessing the Web. Handset manufacturers have launched over 120 new smartphones in the last year alone. Two years ago, there were fewer than 3 billion apps downloaded. Over the next four years, that number is estimated to exceed 40 billion. If the global population is roughly 7 billion, that will mean more than five mobile app downloads for every man, woman and child in the world.

Less visible but every bit as important as this explosion in commercial mobile services is the revolution that is transforming mobile military requirements. Pilotless aircraft are responsible for a great deal of this growth. A decade ago, the earliest unmanned aerial vehicles carried sensors that produced low-resolution, black-and-white videos. Within a few short years, these technologies evolved into standard-definition color signals, then high definition. New systems in planning that focus on more exotic formats, such as 3-D and hyperspectral imagery, will have even greater bandwidth requirements.

But the explosion in demand is not limited to remotely piloted vehicles. The proliferation of new generations of manned surveillance and airborne command vehicles, as well as military executive aircraft, is creating demand for instantaneous global broadband communications. Each step in this evolution has called for significantly greater bandwidth, more sophisticated and flexible support networks, and an ever-greater global footprint of satellite services. Due to the nature of military operations, it is rare that military mobility applications can be supplied by stable terrestrial networks. To meet the military’s growing mobility requirements, the U.S. and its allied militaries are going to require a vast amount of bandwidth and managed services provided by satellite technology.

Commercial satellite operators, responding to the ever-growing demands of their commercial customers, are in the midst of significant fleet upgrades. Intelsat has five launches planned between now and early 2013, part of the biggest fleet investment in company history, that will bring new and replacement capacity to the world’s fastest-growing regions. By early 2013, Intelsat will have a global mobility network comprised of 10 Ku-band beams on seven satellites providing always-on broadband capacity for the world’s busiest maritime and aeronautical routes.

In addition to the satellites being launched right now, operators are also looking at introducing dramatic new capabilities in their next generation of satellites. New technologies on the horizon offer the potential for greatly enhancing satellite throughput and flexibility, and hold the promise of increased efficiency. These satellites, although highly advanced, will be able to take cost-effective advantage of existing terminals, teleports and other ground infrastructure.

Since the cancellation of the Transformational Satellite program in 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has struggled to respond to the explosive demand for satellite bandwidth and network services. Programs of record, such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency system, Wideband Global Satcom and the Mobile User Objective System, have struggled — some with technical challenges, others with cost and schedule overruns, and all, once launched, with a critical shortage of compatible and affordable user terminals. At times during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, DoD’s own space systems were capable of meeting less than 10 percent of the warfighters’ communications needs. The bulk of military demand has been met by commercial transponders that otherwise might have been delivering television programming or network services. The partnership that developed between the U.S., its allies and the global commercial satellite industry is a great government-industry success story.

DoD has embarked on a fresh review of its plans for military satellite communications. The Resilient Baseline Study, due this summer, is designed to review the overall DoD space architecture and, among other things, plan for future cooperation between DoD and the commercial satellite industry.

The Resilient Baseline Study is a timely review. The private sector has proposed a comprehensive range of alternatives that could significantly enhance future DoD capabilities. These alternatives include hosting of government payloads on commercial satellites, creative procurement strategies that significantly reduce cost, and a range of financial approaches that could result in ownership economics without the burdens of ownership. It is essential that these alternatives be considered as part of a comprehensive review.

The U.S. government can look no further than its Australian allies for a true model of future commercial-government partnerships. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) will soon commence operations of a specially designed hosted payload on the recently launched Intelsat 22 satellite, which saved the ADF more than $150 million and assured them far quicker access to space.

Because of the demands for global mobility, the U.S. military will continue to largely rely on commercial capacity, especially in the increasingly important Pacific Ocean region. The current and future satellites being launched by Intelsat and others will be able to meet the “anywhere, anytime” demand of globally deployed forces with flexible communications; automated network management systems; full intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance integration with manned and unmanned aircraft; and resilient, high-capacity, on-the-move broadband communications.

I urge our partners in the U.S. government to actively consider cost-effective and reliable communications alternatives, supported by commercial satellite operators like Intelsat, to meet their mobile broadband needs today and in the future.

David McGlade is chief executive officer of Intelsat.