When I first started working with military SATCOM frequencies back in the 1990s, one major problem was that ground terminals were expensive. We spent many hours working with manufacturers to try to bring those costs down in line with terminals that used commercial frequencies.
Part of the challenge was that the scale was completely different. With hundreds of satellites providing services using commercial frequencies and hundreds of thousands of ground terminals across hundreds of general and specialized applications, economies of scale and competition had driven down costs and prices for these terminals. In the military frequency realm, terminals were few and far between meaning prices were higher. Even as recently as 2007, terminals for military SATCOM frequencies were 50% higher than equivalent commercial frequency terminals.
I pick 2007 for a reason – that was when the first Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) launched for the U.S. Government. Up until that time, the only government frequency satellites in use belonged to governments and were used solely for national interests, with the one exception being XTAR, which launched two X-band satellites in 2005 and 2006. Since then, the WGS fleet has grown to 10 satellites, with 11 and 12 to come. The British military fleet has expanded across the five Skynet satellites. Canada’s X-band payload sits aboard Telesat’s Anik G1 satellite. XTAR has announced a replacement strategy, and SES and LuxGovSat launched X-band and Mil-Ka capabilities on GovSat-1.
Suddenly, there is global coverage in military SATCOM frequencies. Now there is a way for users to gain access to this valuable and effective resource almost anywhere. The development and purchasing of compatible terminals have increased to take advantage of the distinct technical and operational advantages that these frequency bands offer. The result is that terminal costs have come down – significantly. The economies of scale are approaching a similar point to those of terminals that operate in commercial frequencies.
At this point, terminal prices should not differ by operating frequency, except one factor. That factor? User requirements.
U.S. Government users desire and require more secure and resilient features for mission assurance. With national security in mind, redundancies, durability, and the ability to withstand austere and specialized operating conditions are understandably necessary. But even with a ruggedized terminal for military SATCOM frequencies and applications, pricing has become similar to comparable terminals operating on commercial frequencies.
The old days of military frequencies needing terminals that are much more expensive have gone. They now exist in a healthy competitive environment where users can acquire capabilities in the same way as commercial terminals. This allows the warfighter accessibility to the best operating frequency to fit their mission requirements, rather than having to choose if performance or cost should be the deciding factor.
As of January 2020, multiple terminals from 19 manufacturers were registered for use on GovSat-1 at both X-band and Military Ka-band, with more being added every month. The technical advantages of X-band and Mil Ka-band for mobility and small-form-factor terminals are compelling. Outdated pricing expectations should not be a reason why these capabilities are overlooked.