Skynet Operator Hedging Bet on X-band’s Continued Growth

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LONDON — Paradigm Secure Communications of Britain is hedging its primary bet on the continued growth of X-band frequencies for military users by creating a test bed for Ka-band services on the Hylas 1 commercial Ka-band satellite scheduled for launch in the coming weeks, Paradigm Managing Director Keith Norton said.

Paradigm has made a major investment in X-band through its Skynet fleet of satellites for the British government and, more recently, with its lease of the full three-transponder X-band payload on Telesat’s Anik G1 satellite, scheduled for launch into 107.3 degrees west in late 2012.

The addition of Anik G1 gives Paradigm an extended coverage area to include the eastern Pacific Ocean, and it has leased the Telesat capacity for the satellite’s full 15-year life on the assumption that it will appeal to the U.S. and Canadian navies.

Paradigm currently operates seven satellites: three aging Skynet 4 spacecraft and one NATO spacecraft, the NATO 4B, which is also nearing retirement, along with three newer, more powerful Skynet 5 satellites that it purchased as part of a long-term services contract with the British Defence Ministry.

A fourth Skynet 5, called Skynet 5D, recently has been contracted as part of an extension, to 2022, of the British Defence Ministry contract, and in recognition by British defense authorities that their demand for Skynet 5 capacity is growing faster than expected. Skynet 5D is scheduled for launch in 2013.

The U.S. Defense Department’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) Ka-band satellite system, and London-based Inmarsat’s Global Xpress Ka-band satellites, might be seen as competing for at least part of Paradigm’s emerging global X-band network. Norton said the company, which is owned by Astrium Services, part of the EADS aerospace conglomerate, is considering the acquisition of additional X-band capacity.

For Norton, both WGS and Global Xpress suffer from the lack of security of transmission that can be offered by the military X-band frequency.

In addition, in a comment that backers of Ka-band have repeated in recent months, he said the Ka-band “ecosystem” of gateways and user terminals remains a work in progress, whether it is for manned or unmanned aerial vehicles or ground-based gear.

The well-known degradation of Ka-band signals from rain fade also is an issue, although not one that affects high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned vehicles, which fly above rain clouds.

X-band does not have these problems, but it cannot offer the amount of available bandwidth that remains Ka-band’s biggest draw for military and commercial users alike.

In addition to WGS and Global Xpress, several Ka-band satellites are scheduled for launch in the coming months, starting with London-based Avanti Communications’ Hylas 1, which is in final preparations for launch aboard a European Ariane 5 ECA rocket.

Paradigm has purchased an undisclosed amount of Hylas 1 capacity to develop a Ka-band test bed that Norton said should help solve what he said is “the chicken-and-egg problem” of there being little in-orbit Ka-band capacity because there are too few ground terminals, and too few terminals because of a lack of satellite capacity.

Norton said Paradigm’s Hylas 1 campaign will include live tests with military customers of remote antennas. Among other goals, the program will study what some say is Ka-band’s relatively high sensitivity to pointing accuracy.

The Skynet 5 contract, which outsources all British military beyond-line-of-sight communications to Paradigm, has been in effect for five years, with the first three Skynet 5 satellites launched in 2007 and 2008.

British Defence Ministry officials have said repeatedly that the contract is progressing as they hoped it would, which explains the extension to 2022. But judging from comments from French, Italian, Dutch and other governments here Nov. 8-10 at the Global Milsatcom conference organized by SMi Group, the idea of trusting the private sector to handle the most sensitive military satellite telecommunications continues to be widely viewed as risky.

No other European government has agreed to copy the British model.

British Royal Navy Commander Andy Rayner, who oversees the British military’s beyond-line-of-sight communications, reiterated here Nov. 9 that the contract has given British authorities the flexibility they have needed to adjust capacity to demand.

The Skynet 5C satellite originally was intended as an in-orbit spare, but it is now being used for operational purposes given the continued increase in demand. The Skynet 5 satellites, all nuclear-hardened and equipped with anti-jamming technology, are providing UHF and SHF links to British troops in the field, with Afghanistan being a special focus.

Paradigm also provides capacity to the NATO alliance and to individual allied governments with Skynet 5.

Rayner said a late-2009 study of British military demand for satellite bandwidth, conducted by Qinetiq of Farnborough, England, showed that UHF demand was double that predicted when the Skynet 5 contract was originally signed. Demand for SHF is also double what was predicted, and British forces are using commercial satellite bandwidth for some unmanned aerial vehicle video streams.

A Qinetiq official said the study, forecasting demand to 2018, shows a steady increase in demand even if Afghanistan is no longer a focus of allied military activity in the coming years.

Rayner said his department’s job now is to ask British political and military authorities to look hard at how much protected, secure capacity they really need, and how much of it can be off-loaded to less-expensive commercial satellites, or to satellites operated in cooperation with other nations at a time of severe budget cuts.