Iridium NEXT satellite constellation (Graphic: Iridium)

WASHINGTON: The Space Force is increasingly interested in Iridium’s satellite broadband communications services as one path to feeding the military’s ever-growing appetite for space-based Internet — especially as the military services move to make Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) real, say senior company officials.

“Right now, the most exciting thing they’re looking at is our broadband services. With that, we’re able to provide broadband on the move, and they’re a big adopter of that, obviously, for things like JADC2,” Scott Scheimreif, Iridium’s executive vice president for government programs told Breaking Defense.

Scheimreif said his firm is “not trying to compete” in general-purpose broadband, but is offering “very specialized services” that could be of use to Space Force.

“We don’t have to be the primary; we may be the emergency or contingency kind of solution. But we’re not going to have a fixed-price for broadband,” he said, drawing a distinction with the company’s narrowband offerings.

The company operates 66 active Iridium NEXT satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), plus nine spares.

Buying commercial satellite communications (SATCOM) as a service — that is, buying access to bandwidth under a fixed-price contract over a fixed number of years, similar to how individuals buy a cell phone plan — is something that the Space Force has been struggling to do since its inception. It also is something in which combatant commands and the other services, particularly the Army, are interested.

The goal is two-pronged: to save money but also provide more, and more resilient, battlefield communications by being able to switch from one provider to another when one system is either unavailable or actively being jammed.

Space Force’s Space Warfighting Analysis Center (SWAC) is working on a so-called force design aimed at creating a “space data backbone” that integrates SATCOM across military, commercial and even allied networks, SWAC Director Andrew Cox told Breaking Defense in an exclusive interview in January that effort includes looking at a “fee for service” acquisition model.

Further, the Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO) shared a draft request for proposals with industry last fall looking for feedback on how the Space Force might be able use such a services-based acquisition model to tap into the large constellations of broadband Internet satellites being built in LEO, such Iridium NEXT, the Starlink network being built by SpaceX or a similar network being built by OneWeb.

CSCO serves as a middleman between commercial satellite operators and then matches the needs of various operational commands and other DoD customers to a provider — helping manage the contracting process. However, CSCO doesn’t have a budget or program of record for buying bandwidth access; rather funds are found in the Overseas Contingency Operations fund when a need for a surge in connectivity is required by operators. And up to now it’s not done a lot of contracting on a true fee-for-service basis, according to industry officials.

“We have much more work to do,” Pete Hoene, CEO of SES Government Solutions, told the SATELLITE 2022 conference on March 23. “We really do need a long term partnership so that as owner/operators we can invest in the capabilities the US government wants and needs, but we also have an incentive to do so — longer term contracts, Other Transaction Authority, so we’re more flexible.”

Iridium is one of the few firms that already has a long-term fixed price contract for SATCOM with Space Force. Indeed, the bulk of DoD’s SATCOM services and bandwidth comes via the Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services (EMMS) program, for which Iridium Communications was awarded a $738.5 million, seven-year, fixed-price contract in December 2019.

But that, Iridium CEO Matt Desch explained, is a contract for narrowband services, not broadband.

Narrowband SATCOM is optimized for applications/customers that need highly reliable, low power, and long-range communications — it eats up less of the bandwidth available, and transmits at a higher power level than broadband, thus the high reliability.

“We make everybody else jealous, because we are the only satellite company with a fixed-price model,” he said.”Now, that’s for our narrowband services, because we can afford to do that, be sort of all-you-can-eat.”

Broadband SATCOM, on the other hand, is capable of higher data rates, meaning it can transmit much more data than narrowband in a given amount of time. Thus, broadband is used to provide not just voice communications, but high-speed internet connectivity that can rapidly transmit images and video.

Desch said that there is a lot of interest in broadband as a service, too, but that is more difficult to make a business case for because it is more costly. For this reason, Iridium won’t be offering its various-speed broadband services, called Iridium Certus, under an unlimited data for a fixed-price contract.

Scheimreif also stressed the fact that Iridium doesn’t see itself as a competitor to big broadband providers like SpaceX and OneWeb.

“We kind of consider ourselves a very niche, unique capability of highly reliable, very resilient network. And we work with others like a Starlink, and a OneWeb: they’re providing the big pipes and we’re providing highly reliable service.”

That said, Desch explained that one of the advantages of Iridium’s broadband network for the Space Force is that it is already built. “We built it. We spent billions of dollars, they didn’t have to build it,” he said.

Service officials the company has interacted with also “like the idea” that Iridium’s broadband service is based on L-band, he added, “so it has lot of resiliency.” Finally, he said, the Iridium network is attractive to Space Force because it uses “a small terminal” that “can be integrated with other technologies.”

You Might Like
Learn more about RevenueStripe...