Q&A | Inmarsat’s Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch on shifts in government demand, Global Xpress and Inmarsat 6
WASHINGTON — The advent of new high-throughput systems, growing acceptance of commercial input for space situational awareness, and a surprise U.S. election outcome are all pieces of the shifting industry landscape at a time when the U.S. government is actively preparing for its next iteration of satellite communications.
A year-long U.S. Department of Defense study of future wideband satcom needs and solutions post-Wideband Global Satcom, is underway after receiving commercial and international government partner input.
The U.S. government also has a number of new industry engagements going on, such as the Commercial Integration Cell within the Joint Space Operations Center, letting six satellite operators work directly with government on SSA tasks like boosting the accuracy of conjunction assessments and reducing RF interference between satellites. The Commercial Integration Cell, along with the Pathfinder capacity acquisition experiments and other projects have increased industry confidence in collaborating with the government.
Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president of Inmarsat’s U.S. Government Business Unit, spoke with SpaceNews about why she is still confident industry-government relations will continue to improve under the next administration as well as how Inmarsat is preparing to address government satcom needs.
Over the past year or two there seems to be a lot of positive headway made between the commercial sector and DoD leadership. Now that the country is preparing for Donald Trump to be president, do you see that shaping the relationship between the commercial sector and the Air Force?
I think that it will continue to mature and become even more substantive. There has been quite a bit of progress and even improvement — because talk is one thing, action is something else — in that relationship between industry and leadership within the department of defense.
I believe, as we are watching the cabinet taking shape and where the president-elect may take the country, that these relationships will continue to further develop. The people that are carrying the mantle and engaging with industry are not immediately intended to be replaced by the changing administration, so they maintain the continuity of that leadership through the course of the transition of power, which is very essential to continue to ensure progress.
Government demand has been low for most operators. Has government demand still atrophied or do you see that rebounding?
This is true for us and other operators in the concentrated areas of the Middle East where you have bandwidth from so many users concentrated in one area of operation. However, what we are seeing now is greater geographically dispersed demand that is not entirely concentrated in one specific region. That can be anything from responding to earthquakes worldwide, such as the recent disaster in New Zealand, to training for different troop movements and other events that are happening in theater. We actually see wider demand from a broader geography as opposed to very concentrated demand in one specific region. From Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance to data backhaul, Blue Force Tracking or video distribution, we see consistently growing demand.
Since Intelsat had an issue with one of their thrusters on an Epic satellite, has that resulted in any business swinging to Inmarsat?
We would never celebrate another satellite operator’s difficulties, because that is always a challenge to the rest of the business. I will say that what we offer is a very highly differentiated service that is truly focused and intentionally built from the ground up with mobility in mind.
Talking about high throughput satellites in general, how have you seen DoD respond to the growth of high throughput satellites, and where do you see the best fit?
I see a lot of interest in the concept of high throughput, and a lot of talking on panels discussing the viability of very dense satellite communications coverage. That’s looking more toward the future in the possibility of a bandwidth spike with huge amounts of bandwidth available. There is interest in having choice amongst the different operators and having greater access to increased bandwidth.
What we are seeing today on Global Xpress is significant interest in integrating our capabilities into the architecture. This ensures we are operating right alongside traditional military satellite communications so that they have augmentation capabilities and redundant services as well as diverse capabilities to be able to address requirements.
Regarding Pathfinder 3, it seems to be similar to Pathfinder 2. What is your take on this latest Pathfinder?
My understanding is that Pathfinder 2 will be focused on continental U.S. capability in terms of where the service may be provided. As articulated by some people at Space and Missile Systems Center, Pathfinder 3 will continue to be more global, so there will be a geographic difference.
Our hope for the Pathfinders is now that we have gone to solve yesterday’s challenges, that the Pathfinders explore new and innovative acquisition processes to shape how the government can acquire capabilities in that very dynamic environment. This supports the ability to to outfit the architecture of the future by complementing legacy milsatcom, and a very finite and small separate purpose-built milsatcom, rather than an operational and maintenance tail by perpetuating yesterday’s business model. We are watching the Pathfinders very closely, so that they will actually be more progressive and about new acquisition approaches more so than trying to provide a capability based on old-buying habits. That’s not the intent of the Pathfinders.
It is important to see how the Pathfinders and AoA stitch together. The Pathfinders should feed into the Wideband Analysis of Alternatives, and I think it will be very exciting to see how quickly and informed the government can look at a range of alternatives that incorporate the best of breed of commercial as a foundation of their satellite communications architecture to fill in that known gap that is on the horizon in a very affordable and agile fashion. We have been positioning Inmarsat to add that augmentation.
With the WGS AoA, there seemed to be a lot of positive feedback about the commercial input being received for that. Are those conversations still ongoing? What’s your sense of how the commercial sector’s input has been taken into consideration there?
The discussions that have taken place so far have all been pre-Analysis of Alternatives discussions. Winston Beauchamp from the Principal DoD Space Advisor office has been very open in trying to engage industry to shape the AoA so that they ask the right questions. Now that the guidance is out from the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, the Air Force is going to Secretary Kendall for a milestone decision and directions in the early December timeframe. That will kick off the formal Analysis of Alternatives activities and the summation of working groups.
Ostensibly there is intended to be a commercial working group that will enable open dialog and feedback with industry in the actual execution of the AoA. That should be very interesting to see how that comes together. This is something very new and different that to the best of my knowledge is unprecedented and exciting to look forward to, but it’s unclear yet how that will shape up.
Inmarsat was named the winner of a contested navy contract after a protest from Intelsat. Now that the contract is in Inmarsat’s hands, are there any other hurdles or is that moving forward?
One of our distribution partners, our value added reseller arm Inmarsat Government, was in fact awarded the Navy Commercial Broadband Satellite Program. Now that that contract has been awarded to Inmarsat Government, our retail arm is in the execution phase right now. There are no obstacles. The contract has been awarded, it has been initiated, and they have begun work on it.
The Inmarsat 6 generation satellites were announced at the end of last year, and Inmarsat has the forthcoming launch of the fourth I-5 satellite. What considerations are being made with respect to new capacity when it comes to providing government services?
The U.S. government is our single largest customer, and a very strong and valued trusted partner of Inmarsat. As we look at all of our options in terms of future investment, growth, capacity and capability, we always look at our markets that we serve, in this case the U.S. government. As we did with Global Xpress, we intentionally built in attributes and capabilities and functionality that were of benefit and value to the U.S. government. We will continue to do that in our Inmarsat 6 fleet. We have done so on our Global Xpress Inmarsat-5 flight-four, and we continue to listen to our users.
If the government had a unique capability that they would want to add or a payload they would want to insert, we would look at those requirements on a case by case basis, and we will certainly look into that for any of our fleet where it makes sense.
Can you give any example of a service you would be able to provide to the government with I-6 that you couldn’t do today?
There will be more capacity available and more geography as well. There will be different orbital slot locations to be able to add L and Ka frequencies for additional coverage and redundancy, so it is geography, it is capacity, it is capability, and we’re always looking at new and different waveforms that can add different types of throughputs and resiliency. Those are the types of new things we are looking at in the Inmarsat 6s.