An Arianespace Soyuz rocket carrying 34 OneWeb satellites awaits launch at Baikonur Cosmodrome on Aug. 22, 2021. Credit: OneWeb

WASHINGTON — Under a new agreement with U.S. defense contractor Peraton, OneWeb’s satellite communications services will be more widely available to military users in hard-to-reach areas, including ships at sea. 

Low Earth orbit satellite communications “is a game-changing capability for maritime, aviation, defense and other customers operating in remote environments outside of standard network coverage areas,” said Nate White, Peraton’s vice president and general manager of communications.

Peraton is a systems integrator that provides managed satcom services to the government. The Pentagon frequently turns to integrators to stitch together networks from multiple vendors. Leonardo DRS Global Enterprise Solutions provides similar services.

White said the U.S. military typically wants network services that combine satellites in geosynchronous, medium and low orbits. He noted that until OneWeb came online, Iridium was the only LEO-based satellite service available to the military and there is a huge demand for low-latency communications. 

“Military customers want almost the ease of a cell phone, with one interface to multiple networks so we’re working to be able to do that so they’re not having to go buy from individual service providers,” he said.

Most of the military demand for satcom comes from the U.S. Army that has forces deployed in areas where there is limited telecom infrastructure. The Navy increasingly is looking for additional satcom capacity for ships at sea, White said. “OneWeb brings a lot more bandwidth to bear. With LEO systems, you don’t have these 300 millisecond round trip delays that you see in GEO satellites, so you’re going to have a conversation or get data moved at speeds closer to what a wired network does.”

OneWeb’s planned constellation of 648 satellites is almost half way complete. Since the company emerged from bankruptcy in November and continued to build its network, it has signed global distribution partnerships and strategic agreements with AT&T, Hughes Network Systems, Alaska Communications, BT, Northwestel, and now Peraton.

The company said it will start service this year at the 50th parallel and above, and reach global coverage in 2022.

White said he expects the Navy and the Coast Guard to add LEO services to their satcom contracts. The maritime forces primarily rely on Inmarsat when they’re at sea and they need more bandwidth. 

With the new LEO systems, “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 live streaming over Netflix. There are very few providers that cover the big open ocean.”

One of the challenges of bringing LEO satcom into the military are the user terminals. Current terminals are not interoperable with multiple satcom providers, creating a logistics problem for the military.

“If you’re going into Africa or the Middle East, there’s only so much space on a C-17 or C-5 transport aircraft,” he said. “They can’t be bringing thousands of different terminals. We don’t want that. It creates a lot of challenges from a logistic support standpoint.”

OneWeb’s user terminals, made by Intellian Technologies and Collins Aerospace, are about the size of a briefcase. But the military wants terminals that are smaller and also can talk to GEO satellites and other networks. “Kymeta is moving down that path and I think they’re shaking up the market a little bit,” White said. 

“Customers want one interface device that will access many different networks,” he said. “Everybody’s looking for bandwidth portability. But I think it’s going to be another five years or so before we start to see a lot more of that.”

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...