Satellite broadband players poised to compete for U.S. military customers

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OneWeb, Inmarsat, Kymeta predict future growth in the defense market

WASHINGTON — While SpaceX’s Starlink continues to build momentum in the U.S. defense market, other industry players are positioning to compete for military customers that seek low-latency satellite broadband and more specialized services.

“In the U.S. defense and government marketplace, the demand is for mobile, mobile, mobile,” Ian Canning, chief operating officer of OneWeb Technologies, said last week at the MilSat Symposium in Mountain View, California.

OneWeb Technologies is the U.S. proxy subsidiary of British satellite operator OneWeb. Like Starlink, OneWeb originally planned to focus on consumer broadband but later pivoted to the enterprise and government markets.

Canning said OneWeb Technologies is projecting that nearly 70% of its business will be from U.S. government contracts in the coming years. To reach that goal, the company has to ramp up space launches so it can deploy the remaining two-thirds of its planned low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation of 648 satellites and start the deployment of second-generation spacecraft.

OneWeb in March suspended launches with Russia’s Soyuz rockets after the Russian government put severe conditions, including requiring the British government to divest its stake in the company. OneWeb has since booked launches with India’s space agency and with SpaceX. “We will complete our network deployment by the end of next year,” Canning said. 

He said the military is signaling strong demand for LEO-based communications, and also for flexible networks that connect ground users to satellites in different orbits.

“We’re looking to integrate with other networks, other capabilities to provide that resilience,” said Canning. 

OneWeb’s second-generation constellation, projected to start launching in 2026 or 2027, will have more advanced cybersecurity features and likely will attract government customers, he said. “We’re really looking to make sure that we bring in as many of the government’s requirements, particularly around cybersecurity, that we reasonably can within a commercial service.”

Inmarsat to launch LEO network

Inmarsat, an operator of communications satellites in geostationary and highly elliptical orbits, is already a dominant player in the defense market but is looking to gain more military customers with a new low Earth orbit network planned for 2026.  

“Our future lies in Orchestra,” said Walter Moffitt, chief architect of Inmarsat Government, the U.S. subsidiary of Inmarsat. The company is expected to merge with U.S. satellite operator Viasat after the U.K. government completes an antitrust review.

Orchestra is envisioned as a multi-orbit system with at least 150 LEO satellites that will be integrated with those in geostationary and highly elliptical orbits, and with terrestrial 5G, using a new network-management technology called software-defined wide area network, or SD-WAN.

The SD-WAN technology, Moffitt said at the MilSat conference, would provide added cybersecurity to the government by rerouting data traffic if one of the network nodes is attacked. “I think we’re in a fairly good place as we look at government requirements for resiliency and flexibility.”

Moffitt said there are unique satcom demands for military users that can’t be met by traditional commercial services. 

“There’s just some particular missions within the DoD as we all know, that not might not necessarily lend themselves to a well structured commercial satellite service,” he said. For example, the company is investing in electronically steered arrays suited for military autonomous drones. “We’re working a lot in ever smaller mobility terminals for unmanned platforms.” 

Demand for low-profile antennas

Richard Hadsall, vice president of satellite antenna manufacturer Kymeta, said the company is seeing a marked increase in U.S. military demand for low-profile electronically steered antennas that track satellites on the move. 

In response to military requests, he said, Kymeta has been focusing on antennas that can track satellites in multiple orbits. Hadsall said the company projecting that 75% of the demand for flat panel electronically steered antennas by 2024 will come from the U.S. government, followed by the first responder and energy sectors.

“They want flexibility,” he said. “So you have to have a product that is capable of switching automatically and seamlessly between GEO and LEO.” 

“I see the demand for land mobility ever increasing,” said Hadsall. Kymeta plans to roll out a new terminal in 2023 that will talk to satellites in GEO, LEO and medium orbits. 

The U.S. military also is a target customer for Kymeta’s broadband service, a custom satellite-cellular hybrid service for mobile users. 

“We’ve been very successful with our government users,” he said. “They bring their own crypto and put it on the system.” The flat panel antennas, entirely controlled by software, can be customized with anti jamming or other applications to mitigate interference.