The new age of satellite

For those not following along at home, satellite services are earning a new seat at the enterprise table

As far as technologies go, satellite networking has had more ups and downs than a humiliated reality TV star.

The space-based services, which can be used for voice and data transmissions, are frequently on the losing side of comparisons with sexier, newer wireless technologies. Meanwhile, corporate bankruptcies and grounded government programs, such as the Air Force’s $26 billion, not-so-excellent adventure, Transformational Satellite, dot the sector’s history and further dent its public image.

Yet time and again, satellites are the last network standing when the going gets tough and land-based communications — yes, even cell networks — are beaten into submission (see Haiti 2010 or Hurricane Katrina 2005).

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Now satellites' famous resiliency is being joined by a steadily brightening price and performance story that might surprise those who haven’t been following along lately. The disaster recovery insurance policy that only satellite networking can provide for enterprise networks can be an everyday staple instead of a luxury. And the economics of getting network connectivity via satellite into remote areas that are not served by terrestrial broadband are also being recast quite favorably.

Agency executives will have a better chance to discover this new storyline thanks to a joint effort between the General Services Administration and the Defense Information Systems Agency. The agencies are creating a one-stop shop named the Future Commercial Satellite Communications Services Acquisition (FCSA), though DISA will retain authority for all Defense Department orders.

During the next two years, FCSA will replace a number of expiring government contracts and give agencies a simpler way to explore and acquire the services that the satellite industry has to offer.

On the flip side, a consolidated marketplace will make it easier and less expensive for vendors to pitch their services, fostering competition that should lead to lower prices for agencies, said Jim Russo, GSA’s deputy program manager for FCSA.

The first thing that many agency executives will discover is that the industry offers more than their fathers’ old satellite service. Mention satellite to many folks, and they probably picture a person speaking into a cartoonishly oversized walkie talkie, an image that conveyed cutting-edge coolness 20 years ago but now seems positively silly.

But old stereotypes can be hard to shake. “A lot of agencies don’t think past satellite phones,” Russo said. “They’ll call us and order up a half-dozen satellite phones and figure, ‘Well, we’ve got that covered.’”

It’s hard to blame them for thinking that way. In the old days — like five years ago — satellite services, for data links especially, required a substantial upfront commitment because of the need to lease dedicated bandwidth from the spacecraft and install specialized equipment on the ground. That meant that there were far fewer takers for the services outside the military.

But thanks to the proliferation of standard IP networking gear, satellite hookups come in shared services packages that play much nicer with the management tools and practices that all agencies rely on for their terrestrial networks, said Bruce Bennett, DISA's director and program executive officer for satellite communications, teleport and services.

“We use satellite now for adding additional layers of redundancy to all our critical sites,” Bennett said.

Satellite service providers have also adopted new data compression and acceleration techniques that help offset the transmission latency that goes with sending data packets on a 22,000-mile trip into space, which used to hinder some applications.

Finally, the satellites are getting much better, and the better satellites are picking up more of the workload as the older spacecraft move into retirement, said Dan O’Connell, a research director at Gartner. For example, the first iteration of Ka-band satellites launched in the past few years are now coming online and offer 10 times the bandwidth of the first-generation Ku- and C-band satellites that still serve as the industry’s orbital workhorses. In the next couple of years, companies will begin launching an even newer version of Ka-band satellites that have 100 times more bandwidth than the oldest craft.

All that capacity will translate into price and performance improvements that will close the already narrowing gap between satellite and terrestrial broadband services such as DSL and cable modem, O’Connell said. Maybe then satellite networking will get the respect it deserves.

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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Reader comments

Fri, Mar 5, 2010 Michael Burke Torrance, CA

John, Good article! However, hand held satellite phones are so limited & so passe. Once you have this fat satellite pipe (2+Mbps) and a very low profile (< 5") SATCOM On-The-Move (SOTM) antenna system, then you can do many things. For example, a mobile WiFi hot spot or a mobile cell "tower" using a Femtocell or similar. Now you can communicate via data, voice, video, etc anywhere in the world, whether stopped or in motion. Oh, where do you find such an antenna? Come to Satellite 2010 in DC and ThinKom will be showing that and other high data rate mobile SATCOM products. Mike

Fri, Mar 5, 2010 Patrick Brown Wasilla Alaska

John: I appreciated your article and agree with the issue of concepts of satellites. The technology has developed and I express a solution to assist the US Air Force. It is called Project LEON - Shoot Stuff Cheaply into Space! Launching payloads by aeroshell using a Ram Accelerator is a solution. I would ask two requests; 1) please consider an article on Project LEON and 2) contact information to get LEON in contact with military personnel to assist. Respectfully, Pat

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