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DoD a challenging customer for fast-moving satellite broadband industry

Companies that provide low Earth orbit satellite broadband view the U.S. Defense Department as a key customer but are being challenged to make their networks compatible with government ground systems and user terminals, officials said Sept. 7 at the Satellite 2021 conference.

Satellite and terminal manufacturers are producing, testing and deploying hardware in orbit faster than ever, but the government often is not able to take advantage of new technology because of its legacy infrastructure, said Dylan Browne, president of OneWeb’s government sector.

The interoperability between commercial and government hardware can be a bigger challenge than even building and launching satellites, Browne said.

The company has 288 satellites in orbit with a goal to deploy a constellation of 650 to provide global communications services. OneWeb is a subcontractor to Hughes Network Systems on a project to provide DoD connectivity in the Arctic region. Browne said he expects OneWeb to grow its presence in the military market but compatibility with government user terminals remains an obstacle.

“We’re not dreamers, we know there is legacy infrastructure,” Browne said.

OneWeb’s network was designed “for lots of different use cases, not least the U.S. government and the military,” he said. “The challenge is to create a seamless service.”

‘We are not waiting’
A bright spot in DoD’s adoption of low Earth orbit satellite connectivity is the Defense Experimentation Using Commercial Space Internet (DEUCSI) program, Browne said. The Army and Air Force have awarded several contracts over the past two years to test the use of commercial space broadband aboard military platforms and assess the performance of different types of services and terminals.

But the industry is moving much faster than DoD’s experiments, Browne said. “We as commercial for-profit businesses are moving at a pace that is set by all of our customers, including the Department of Defense, and it’s fast. We’re not waiting.”

Commercial providers are attuned to the government’s acquisition process “and we understand that,” said Browne. “There is capacity set aside for the DoD.”

To bridge the gap between OneWeb’s network and government user equipment, the company announced Sept. 7 it has teamed with manufacturer Kymeta to develop an electronically steered flat panel antenna designed to communicate with geostationary satellites using government modems and with OneWeb’s LEO satellites.

Brian Billman, vice president of broadband antenna supplier Isotropic Systems, said the industry is trying to make hardware that is interoperable as much as possible but government has unique demands. Equipment has to be “modular” so it can be adapted for different customers, he said.

Isotropic’s broadband services partner is SES, which operates communications satellites in medium Earth Orbit. SES has been testing Isotropic’s terminals for commercial and military customers.

The challenge with terminals is that “we need to be compliant with not only all the systems today, but also all the systems of the future,” said Billman. “Every end user is going to be different. That’s why we’re taking a modular approach to our design.”

Pentagon official Doug Schroeder, from the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said during the panel discussion that DoD is closely monitoring space industry investments and innovations.

DoD has multiple pots of money for experiments and demonstrations of technologies but those can take years to transition to procurement programs.

With regard to low Earth orbit satellite communications, “the most aggressive” efforts are being pursued by the Space Development Agency. “If you look at who’s voting with our pocketbook, you have to look at Dr. Derek Tournear and the Space Development Agency, “said Schroeder.

The SDA plans to launch is first constellation of 28 communications and missile-detection satellites in low Earth orbit next year and now seeking bids for an additional 144 satellites. SDA’s communications network, known as the Transport Layer, will rely on commercial hardware but will be entirely government owned and operated. Space News

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