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Welcome to the satellite renaissance

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of government, military and satellite-focused conferences where military decision makers and industry leaders have shared the stage to talk about the government’s communication requirements and the advancements being made by the commercial satellite industry. When these conferences and panel discussions were over – including the C4ISRNET Conference, Space Symposium and the MILSATCOM Conference – I’ve left excited.

Why? Because it’s becoming abundantly clear that this is an extraordinary point in time for the satellite and space industries.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen significant changes in the way that the federal government interacts with and acquires services from their satellite partners. Now, halfway through 2019, it’s clear that this year will forever be remembered as the start of the satellite renaissance.

What do I mean by satellite renaissance? We’re entering a period of time where innovation, new technologies and a booming demand for bandwidth are aligning to create an environment where satellite once again becomes one of the hottest topics of discussion and areas of investment in the federal government.

But to truly understand the change that we’re experiencing, we first have to reflect back on where we came from.

A rocky relationship
For the better part of a decade, executives at satellite companies have been working to improve their relationship with the federal government and military. Although capable of playing an enormous role in meeting the wideband satellite and communications requirements of the government and Department of Defense (DoD), commercial satellite companies were often treated less like mission-critical partners, and more like any other vendor selling a commodity.

A big part of this came from the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which previously held acquisition authority for commercial satellite services and often pushed for lowest price, technically acceptable (LPTA) satellite capacity to be purchased on the spot market.

However, the provisions in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) promised to change much of that.

The FY 2018 NDAA shifted the acquisition authority for satellite services from DISA to the Commander of Air Force Space Command, giving them the authority to, “…procure commercial satellite communications for the Department of Defense.” As a result, Air Force Space Command assumed responsibility and authority for the procurement of COMSATCOM on December 12, 2018.

During this transition, Air Force Space Command has worked to ensure that the satellite industry has been heavily involved in shaping the future of satellite networks and lay the groundwork for future wideband satellite acquisition processes that make sense for both government and industry.

The subsequent FY 2019 NDAA and Defense Appropriations bill contained several additional provisions and initiatives that can benefit both the military and commercial satellite industry. Focused on the future wideband architecture and repeated concerns over the inflexibility of the current architecture for military satellite communications, appropriators directed the service secretaries to develop an integrated wideband and narrowband architecture and acquisition strategy.

Congressional leaders also directed that the architecture and acquisition strategy should include, “…government and commercial space systems,” and, “…be based on flexible operations, open standards, and commonality that has communications path diversity.”

In addition, House appropriators directed all future COMSATCOM integration funding into a newly created program element to increase oversight, while authorizing $49.5M in funding specifically for COMSATCOM efforts – a first-ever budget line item for the commercial satellite industry.

These positive steps towards improved relations between the military and commercial satellite industry have the potential to deliver incredible benefits to the DoD. This potential is only augmented by the capabilities of today’s more advanced satellites, and the increasingly large bandwidth demands of network-centric operations.

A recent renaissance in space
Over the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of multiple potentially disruptive technologies that are capable of fundamentally changing the way the federal government and military operate.

Today’s federal agencies and military branches are scrambling to implement advanced data analytics and Artificial Intelligence to help them gain actionable insights from their data. They’re integrating an enormous ecosystem of sensors into their military platforms and infrastructure. They’re rolling mobile devices out to warfighters, and they’re increasingly looking to generate real-time 4D video ISR data from UAVs to inform their mission planning.

These are just a handful of the new technologies and use cases that are spearheading the demand for a “digital transformation” within the government and military. But these technologies also have something else in common – they’re all network-enabled solutions that are powered by, and require, high-bandwidth network connectivity.

Luckily for the government, this increased bandwidth requirement comes at an exciting time for the satellite industry. A new generation of High Throughput Satellites (HTS) are being built and launched into Geostationary Orbit (GEO), as well as other orbits closer to Earth. When orbiting the Earth in the Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), these satellites are capable of delivering immense bandwidth and capacity with drastically reduced latency. This means that the same experience that government users get from terrestrial fiber networks is now available practically anywhere on Earth via satellite.

These solutions are only available to the military through commercial partners. That’s because the rapid innovation in the commercial space industry brings satellite support to the military’s doorstep quicker and more cost effectively than the traditional method of building and launching purpose-built government satellites.

Last year was a great year for the commercial satellite industry and their improving relationships with the federal government. But, thanks to the intersection of multiple government and industry trends, 2019 promises to be even more exciting.

The government’s demand for bandwidth to all corners of the globe is enormous and growing every day. The commercial satellite industry has been innovating relentlessly to develop new, higher bandwidth, lower latency solutions to meet increasing capacity requirements. And the relationship between government organizations and their satellite industry partners is improving immensely. The stage is set for a satellite renaissance. In fact, it may already be upon us.

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