Each quarter, the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) facilities at California National Guard’s Camp Roberts play host to events organized by the Joint Interagency Field Experimentation Program (JIFX), under the sponsorship of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.
These events provide the military with the ability to conduct field experiments on new resources and technologies to assess if they could potentially improve operations for the military, disaster response, and emergency management. They also provide a cooperative learning environment where military personnel come together with other federal, state and local agencies to identify best practices and new ways in which technology improves operational efficiency, effectiveness and mission assurance.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend a JIFX event at Camp Roberts that was testing out the use of our O3b Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellite constellation for the distribution and dissemination of 4K video. The project – entitled the NPS Video Cloud System Project – was intended to test interoperable communication solutions in network-denied disaster response environments.
Effectively, the government was looking to utilize advanced computer hardware and video codecs, in conjunction with MEO satellite services, to, “…stream live 4K video via satellite from remote locations in support of military public affairs organizations.”
Connectivity for NPS, as well as a large proportion of current military operations, occur in remote, network-denied regions. This makes streaming live video over MEO satellites for public affairs purposes, or Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) purposes, critical.
More data, more (bandwidth) challenges
The JIFX test – which proved to be extremely successful – is an indication of things to come for America’s military. Data distribution and sharing requirements are increasingly important in everything that the military does and will only grow in the future. As such, the types and sizes of files being sent are shifting rapidly.
Today’s military is looking for ways to send more data than ever before. Even with advanced codecs, compression technologies and specialized hardware, essential communication capabilities such as video teleconferencing (VTC), 4K video and real time mobile applications utilize much more bandwidth than what the military traditionally sent over its networks in the past.
The ability to transmit and receive these files efficiently and with zero packet loss is why MEO satellite constellations are such an attractive option for the military. These satellites have the same ability as GEO satellites to deliver data, voice and video into practically any geographic location – particularly to those with no or little terrestrial network infrastructure. However, in contrast to GEO satellites, MEO satellites are approximately one quarter the distance from Earth. This proximity enables the constellation to deliver higher throughput (up to 600 Mbps/600Mbps) with much lower latency (less than 200 milliseconds, end-to-end). This equates to delivery of a fiber-like connectivity from space.
The JIFX test focused on transmitting 4K video for public affairs teams, however this application is just one of many for this technology in the military. Here are a few more:
- ISR – Delivering 4K and HD video reconnaissance and intelligence to and from battlefields to improve situational awareness.
- Large file transfer – Transmitting of today’s large files (100 GB in 27 minutes) – from video to large datasets – between warfighters in the field and senior decision makers.
- Interactive, real time applications – Powering the use of mobile applications that request data in real time for full effectiveness and capability.
- 4G LTE bubbles – Using MEO satellites for mobile backhaul to power pockets of 4G connectivity and enable the use of military mobile devices and other technologies.
- Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) – Delivering internet connectivity and social media access for warfighters in the field
The successful JIFX test proved that MEO can deliver connectivity in network-denied areas. It is clear that current and future military technologies require the bandwidth that MEO can deliver. But, can the military afford it?
Analyzing the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for MEO
MEO satellite constellations are built for delivering large amounts of data with low latency. MEO delivers that capability efficiently and cost effectively, which is essential for the military today. In fact, there are multiple concepts of operation (CONOPs) that are ideal for MEO satellite constellations, most involving the transfer of large amounts of data traffic (100 Mbps).
In these specific large data application scenarios, the military has examined the TCO of MEO – and they like what they see.
MEO constellations are built for high bandwidth applications. In contrast to GEO constellations, MEO offers a much lower cost per megabit alternative. Considering how much bandwidth could be used transmitting real time data or live streaming 4K video, the bandwidth per Mb price truly comes in to focus.
Overall, the use of MEO satellite constellations for high bandwidth implementations can save as much as 25 to 50 percent of what it would cost for the same amount of throughput on a GEO constellation. Over a very short time (less than six months), this results in significant savings for the U.S. government, making year over year operation extremely economical as compared to GEO.
That being said, MEO satellites will never replace GEO for all military implementations and uses. In many CONOPS, GEO is still the better solution.
When GEO trumps MEO
Having spent the better part of 900 words extolling the benefits of MEO satellites, it would be a disservice to my readers if I didn’t mention that MEO constellations are not the superior choice in all instances. In fact, legacy GEO satellite constellations, as well as newly emerging High Throughput Satellite (HTS) constellations, will continue to break new barriers in service.
Evident in the image below, MEO beams (450 miles diameter) cover significantly less area than GEO beams. This means that any CONOP that requires moving over large distances will obviate the need for GEO. GEO beams cover so much geography that any movement within a relatively large area will still be covered – most likely by the same GEO beam.
GEO connectivity is important to the military, since warfighters, camps, and vehicles that require connectivity do not always stay in one place. In fact, they are often mobile over a wide geographic region. In these instances, the small coverage area of a MEO satellite beam is trumped by the more ubiquitous GEO beam.
IT and data are essential for our modern military, and the bandwidth demands of the next generation solutions and IT capabilities that the military is utilizing in the field are rising. The military needs high throughput connectivity in network-denied areas. MEO is the only solution that can deliver the fiber-like connectivity the military needs, without the physical fiber – and without breaking the bank.
- White Paper: O3b “Fiber Like” Satellite Communications for U.S. Government Applications
- Milsat Magazine: What Fiber in the Sky Means to the Warfighter Today
- Video: Fiber in the Sky