Agencies eye commercial birds as interest in satellites grows

Satellites have played a minor role in government communications for some time but drastic cuts in the costs of transmission and hardware are bringing the medium a much larger profile in federal plans. This boost in the use of satellite time will give commercial providers a bigger slice of government business.

Costs are coming down thanks to advances in areas such as compression technology volume savings from increased usage on the commercial side and greater competition in the industry.

Mark Schwene director of marketing and sales at Hughes Government Services a business unit of Hughes Space and Communications Co. believes satellites are more cost-effective than terrestrial channels for applications such as broadcast services mobile remote and point-to-multipoint business operations.

This downward pressure on costs should continue because of announcements such as the one by American Mobile Satellite Corp. which recently launched a new communications satellite aimed at offering federal users cut-price cellularlike telephone service anywhere in North America and Hawaii. AMSC is pricing transportable phones at about $2 600 a piece a sixth of the cost of comparable briefcase phones from outfits such as the International Maritime Satellite Organization. The cost of satellite dispatch services is expected to run $70 to $80 a month plus a network setup fee.

Some agencies already are planning major investments in satellite services and with plunging prices in mind are including a much heavier weighting toward the use of commercial time.

The Defense Department already uses some commercial satellite services to augment existing military systems. It is a relatively new practice for the military admits Brig. Gen. James R. Beale deputy director for operations with the Defense Information Systems Agency "but [it] is growing rapidly." DOD recently announced plans to invest between $7 billion and $9 billion in satellite communications early in the next century to replace aging DOD-owned and operated systems. A part of the new system still will have to be DOD-specific to guarantee service and avoid jamming but officials expect it to rely heavily on commercial providers. Some industry estimates have put the potential Pentagon business for commercial satellite services at $200 million or more by 2005.

DISA currently leases transponders on commercial satellites through its open-ended Commercial Satellite Communications Initiative contract held by Comsat RSI. The agency supports a number of DOD programs through this channel. Under CSCI three different satellites each with a transponder dedicated to military traffic are supporting U.S. operations in Bosnia. In addition to providing two-way wideband connectivity for headquarters command and control they allow for point-to-point communications and direct broadcast service. Through this military personnel have been able to make more than 3 million "welfare and morale" calls back to the United States.

CSCI also is supporting programs such as the Navy's Challenge Athena experiment which is examining the use of ship-to-shore T-1 duplex communications through satellites owned by the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium. Building upon the success of Challenge Athena the Navy is planning a significant investment during the next decade in high-data-rate communications to its major ships using commercial satellites.

"Military satellite communications cannot keep up with the amount of throughput we need to meet our requirements " said Lt. Cmdr. James J. Shaw assistant for commercial satellite communications with the Navy Space Systems Division.

Commercial satellites also can be used effectively in very specific applications. For example GTE Government Services has demonstrated how commercial technology can vastly increase the data throughput to submarines. Using a Ku-band satellite it pushed the encrypted data rate to a sub up to 64 kilobit/sec - about 20 times the previous rate - thereby allowing things such as image exchange and videoconferencing for the sub commanders.

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency satellites have been used as an integral component of disaster field support for the last five years. When a disaster strikes FEMA sets up a field office on location with a multi-radio van (MRV) serving as the initial operations center. In addition to landline and radio services the MRV is equipped with Ku-band satellite capability. Either two digital T-1 channels can be used for telephone and data communications or one digital T-1 and one analog video broadcast line. During a disaster compressed video is used for the daily two-way teleconferences between the disaster field office and FEMA headquarters in Washington D.C.

To ensure access when needed FEMA has leased two full-period T-1s on a commercial satellite which are billed at a fixed annual fee regardless of usage. In addition satellites are used for exercises and training.

New digital compression schemes are allowing for the use of more compressed video according to Steven I. Levinsohn deputy director of mobile operations for FEMA. "I don't have to go out and get a second T- 1 for a videoconference " he said. "I can put it on three to four channels of the T-1 I have right now and get the same quality I was getting with eight or nine channels before."

FEMA's Office of Emergency Information and Public Affairs similarly is relying more and more on satellite technology as part of the multimedia mix for the dissemination of critical disaster information according to the office's deputy director Phillip S. Cogan.

Begun in 1993 FEMA's Recovery Channel is a satellite-delivered TV service provided to news media and the public after disasters. The office doesn't have a dedicated transponder for this service but buys available time as needed on the spot market through brokers.

For the Federal Aviation Administration's National Airspace Operations (NAS) satellites are serving two niche areas for air traffic control - links to remote locations and information dissemination.

Under the FAA Telecommunications Satellite (FAATSAT) contract satellites will be used to supplement leased terrestrial services and FAA's microwave network in the continental United States providing a critical alternative communications path to a remote facility said David Tuttle NAS director. Awarded to MCI in June FAATSAT a 10-year requirements contract also provides options for mobile units which can be used for accident investigations and emergency restoration of facilities.

Another award in July to Harris Corp. was for the Weather and Radar Processor (WARP) contract which involves the use of commercial satellites to transmit weather information including satellite images and text to 24 air traffic control centers.

"Rather than sending the data 24 times we're sending it once " explained Kenneth Bath staff software engineer with Harris. "If we sent it by phone line we then would have to pay for 24 communications paths instead of just one."

NAS does not however use satellites extensively in the continental United States and satellite communications in the future will account for no more than 10 to 15 percent of the total NAS infrastructure. "Terrestrial fiber is far more economical for point-to-point communications which are most of our requirements " Tuttle said."

It won't all be smooth sailing however the future of satellite communications poses both challenges and opportunities. Mobile communications systems promise delivery of a whole range of new services but available transponder capacity on the current constellation of satellites already is under pressure and that will only increase.

For example Col. Marlin G. Forbes executive assistant to the director at DISA foresees a substantial increase in bandwidth needs for DOD the world's biggest user of satellites.

But advances in satellite technology particularly the evolution from analog to digital will allow for a much wider set of capabilities. Jerry Edgerton vice president of MCI Government Markets believes satellites will become a distribution medium for multimedia applications thanks to developments such as selective addressing and flexible programming. "The potential is yet to be realized " he said.

Houghtaling is a consultant and writer based in Northern Virginia.

At A Glance

Status: Satellites are still a minor part of the federal communications mix though more agencies are planning to increase their use.

Issues: Improving technology more users and greater competitive pressures are dramatically lowering the cost of satellite communications.Outlook: Good. As the capabilities of satellites increase so will the demand particularly for commercial services.


  • Comment
    customer experience (garagestock/

    Leveraging the TMF to improve customer experience

    Focusing on customer experience as part of the Technology Modernization Fund investment strategy will enable agencies to improve service and build trust in government.

  • FCW Perspectives
    zero trust network

    Why zero trust is having a moment

    Improved technologies and growing threats have agencies actively pursuing dynamic and context-driven security.

Stay Connected