Magazine article National Defense

Military Not Taking Advantage of New Commercial Satellites

Magazine article National Defense

Military Not Taking Advantage of New Commercial Satellites

Article excerpt

The commercial satellite industry, which the U.S. military relies heavily upon to communicate with its global forces, is launching systems that have throughputs that are orders of magnitude higher than any previous spacecraft.

The Pentagon and the armed services, however, are unprepared to take advantage of the advances, both in the technology and in its business practices, industry representatives say.

"The typical aircraft carrier right now--this is 5,000 people on a ship--can receive 20 megabytes [per second] for the whole ship. We're doing 20 megabytes into the home for $99 per month," Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of Hughes Network Systems' defense division, told National Defense.

The $99-per-month price refers to the company's Dish Network consumer TV and internet service, which takes advantage of economies of scale in its pricing, but the cost is not the point. It's the ability to send and receive large amounts of data. The military is woefully lagging in the infrastructure that can significantly boost the byte-per-second throughput, he said.

Hughes, and its commercial communications satellite competitors, are in a decade-long process of swapping out their old analog spacecraft and refreshing them with next-generation digital systems that not only have much larger throughputs, but features such as steer-able beams that can cover different regions if needed.

Hughes has the Jupiter II, which it says is one of the highest throughput satellites orbiting the Earth today with a 220-gigabyte-per-second capacity. Jupiter III hasn't been announced yet, but will be another leap in technology, he said.

Ken Peterman, general manager of government systems at ViaSat, said the company's ViaSat II system will have three times the capacity of all the prior ViaSat spacecraft combined. Its upcoming ViaSat III will have a terabyte-per-second of capacity. In the last eight years, the company has gone through three generations of satellite technology.

"What you're seeing is a remarkable technology trajectory from the commercial and private sector that is bringing wideband capacity faster than it has ever moved before," he said at a panel discussion at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, D.C.

The so-called "digital divide" between the generations, which normally refers to the ability to take advantage of new computing technology, can also refer to bandwidth, Peterman suggested.

High school students today are used to ubiquitous broadband connectivity. Their life, their thought processes and their behaviors are connected to their devices. Then they join the military.

"For the first time, they are bandwidth constrained. And sometimes not connected," he said. "We can put a virtual doctor in an airplane to deal with an emergency. They deserve the same broadband speeds. They deserve the same access to telemedicine," he added.

Lober said he has heard of some instances where sailors did not re-enlist citing a lack of connectivity.

C-130s and C-17 cargo aircraft traveling outside the United States don't have good connectivity to the internet, he noted.

"You can probably get better connectivity on commercial airlines right now than what you're getting on some of these military planes," Lober said.

Returning to the aircraft carrier, modern jet fighters such as the F-35 may need to download software upgrades as the ships are underway. Current speeds would take them all day to download, Lober noted.

Intelsat General is in the process of launching a series of seven of its Epic high-throughput satellites. Two have reached orbit. By 2018, it expects to have global coverage, according to company press releases. "The digital payload provides customers with unprecedented security and flexibility, enabling seamless access and the ability to shift capacity to match their usage needs in a particular region or timeframe," it said. …

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