Just prior to the SATELLITE 2017 Conference, which was held in Washington, D.C. in early March, there was some major news announced by satellite communications company Intelsat. The company was to receive a cash infusion from SoftBank, and then combine with OneWeb in a share-for-share transaction.*
OneWeb is a startup satellite communications company that is looking to deliver high throughput, low latency satellite bandwidth across the globe. To accomplish this, they’ll utilize a constellation of small satellites in lower earth orbit (LEO) that literarily blanket the Earth in connectivity. The first ten satellites are slated to launch in early 2018.
While this news was a hot topic at SATELLITE 2017, the concept of a satellite communications provider with GEO satellite constellations purchasing or merging with a smaller satellite provider utilizing satellites closer to Earth to deliver high throughput, low latency connectivity is not really new.
SES did the exact same thing when they invested in – and then later acquired – O3b Networks, a satellite communications provider that operates a constellation of satellites at medium earth orbit (MEO). O3b’s satellite constellation augmented the existing GEO constellation that SES already had in orbit, and gave the company the ability to offer its customers fiber-like connectivity anywhere on Earth a satellite could place a beam.
When we see two of the world’s largest satellite communications companies following similar paths and augmenting their existing GEO satellite constellations with LEO and MEO satellites through acquisitions and mergers, it starts to look strangely like a trend. Not surprisingly – that’s exactly what we have here.
Getting down with GEO/MEO/LEO
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the beauty of MEO and LEO satellite constellations is their ability to deliver extremely high throughputs and incredible bandwidth through their use of concentrated spot beams. Their closer proximity to the Earth also allows them to deliver that bandwidth with much less latency, in contrast to a GEO satellite constellation.
This may not seem like as big of a deal with the next generation of high-throughput satellites (HTS) coming on line, which also utilize spot beams and offer higher bandwidth. However, there are still differences between what HTS offers and what MEO and LEO constellations offer.
The first is obvious – latency.
Although HTS satellites deliver higher bandwidth, they’re still positioned in GEO, far away from the Earth’s surface. The physical location – less than half the distance from earth as GEO – ensures that MEO will always be lower latency than even HTS satellites.
“There is no question an increasing proportion of defense applications – including many of the military’s mission-critical ones – are and will be based in the Cloud” said Nihar Shah, the VP of Strategy and Market Intelligence at SES. “With applications and databases now hosted in the Cloud, reducing latency and improving network performance is more essential than ever before, since fast, real-time decision making in a tactical environment has lives depending on it.”
Then there’s the issue of flexibility. Although GEO HTS satellites utilize spot beams – much like MEO and LEO satellites –COMSATCOM providers don’t have same ability to navigate or ‘re-assign’ those beams to exactly where their users need them.
Ultimately, by augmenting existing GEO satellites with MEO and LEO constellations, COMSATCOM providers are giving their customers the benefits of one system or another – or both – based on what their particular needs are, and which system will best do the job. The U.S. government is the perfect example of a customer that can benefit from both.
Even better, thanks to the strategic mergers and acquisitions, customers can now get that flexibility all from one provider.
So who really benefits? The end user. Especially government end users.
What this means to government and military
Today’s military is vastly more dependent on IT services and capabilities than ever before..
High throughput, low latency COMSATCOM connections in theater are essential for the military when fiber-like connectivity and latency is required, but fiber simply isn’t available.
That being said, not all military operations and troop positions will require the same level of service and same amount of bandwidth as others.
For forward operating bases and other troop locations where a large amount of bandwidth is needed for both official military communications and operations – as well as the personal use of warfighters in theater – a MEO spot beam can be ‘dropped’ into the base and deliver high-density, fiber-like connectivity capable of handling terabytes of information.
When a smaller, lighter footprint of troops and equipment is needed – the needs are less densely aggregated and positioned, a GEO solution could be sufficient to provide the connectivity and capability necessary in that situation.
“Different operational requirements drive different satellite requirements – some are better addressed via GEO and some are better served by MEO or LEO, but it’s clear the future points to the importance of both” said Shah. “Regardless of which satellite architecture the military may utilize at a given time or in a given scenario, they must integrate into a flexible and unified network so that mission-critical applications and information are shared and accessible in real time between all DoD users.”
Ultimately, when COMSATCOM providers augment their GEO fleets with MEO and LEO constellations, they give their military and federal government customers the flexibility to utilize the right solution in the right situation through a trusted provider and partner with whom they already have a relationship. And the existing relationship is really key, since that makes it easier and faster for the government to acquire and utilize these services.
Then there’s the ever-important issue of security. In an era where space is an increasingly contested environment and our adversaries are working to compromise space capabilities, the military now has to consider space a warfighting domain and protect satellite resources.
Disaggregating, proliferating and distributing military communications across both commercial and military GEO satellites helps provide increased resiliency and makes it harder for adversaries to target military communications. Further disaggregating military communications across both GEO and MEO can foster additional resiliency and redundancy and help ensure space capabilities are always available to the warfighter in theater.
The combination of LEO, MEO and GEO satellite systems is a trend that will most likely represent the future of the COMSATCOM industry – and the government is poised to benefit.
For additional information about O3b, click HERE to download the whitepaper, “O3b “Fiber Like” Satellite Communications for U.S. Government Applications,” or click HERE to listen to an exclusive podcast featuring O3b CEO, Steve Collar.
*Editor’s note: Shortly following the publication of this article, Space News reported, “OneWeb officially called off its planned merger with Intelsat…after the final deadline for a debt swap passed without enough support.”