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Agencies discover satellite power

Mobile phone signals get a boost from orbit

Mar. 24, 2014 - 09:30PM   |  
By ADAM STONE   |   Comments
Arizona Struggles To Patrol Vast Border With Mexic
Many federal agencies learning to rely on space-based signals for mobile communications in remote locations. (David McNew/ / Getty Images)

Sometimes forest fires rage inconveniently far from cell towers, leaving responder teams potentially cut off from support. But managers can look to the skies for communications solutions.

“Satellites provide this connectivity option when there are no other options,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Lawrence Chambers.

Satellite use is widespread in the military, but other federal entities also rely on space-based signals for mobile communications. All of the agencies involved with emergency management, homeland security, law enforcement, immigrant interdiction and drug patrols have some investment in satellite communications.

Thanks to a number of recent developments, the tools of commercial satellite communications (COMSATCOM) are becoming increasingly efficient and effective. That could be good news for the federal government, which accounts for 12 percent of the domestic satellite industry, according to research firm IBISWorld.

Concentrated power

The introduction of high throughput satellites (HTS) is proving a game-changer, said Karl Fuchs, vice president of technology, iDirect Government Technologies.

A form of concentrated power, HTS is best understood visually. In the past, a traditional satellite would broadcast a beam literally the size of the continental United States. HTS breaks it down to multiple beams, each a couple of hundred miles in diameter.

End users could carry a much smaller antenna — a key issue in mobile communications — while still receiving the needed speed and volume of information. “Now instead of having one gigantic beam, we have a large number of highly focused, overlapping spot beams,” Fuchs said. The concentrated beams also allow for greater bi-directional use, which is the ability to not only receive but send information.

For federal users, “this new HTS technology is enabling intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in a way that we have never been able to do before,” Fuchs said. It’s also bringing down costs, as the narrow beams allow end users to essentially share bandwidth by piggybacking on existing architecture.

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In the past, agencies needed their own infrastructure and had to permanently lease transponder space on a satellite, Fuchs said. “Now they can do all this using a shared service with multiple organizations, even commercial organizations.”

HTS may also open the door to new forms of communication previously unavailable to government users.

“Voice requires very little bandwidth. Data can require enormous amounts of bandwidth for things like live high-definition video streams. All these government users have a variety of applications, some of which are just [bandwidth] killers,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Tip Osterthaler, who is now chief executive officer of SES Government Solutions in McLean, Va. HTS could make such applications a more practical proposition.

Spreading the signal

The expanding agility of COMSATCOM is being driven in large part by the explosion in connectivity both in the civilian world and among military users who help to shape the market.

“As the number of DoD users who are employing tablets and other mobile devices continues to grow, the demands to provide connectivity to networks for data flow increases exponentially,” said Charles Edwards, deputy chief of DISA’s COMSATCOM Center.

“Many of the mobile communications devices and systems are serving to extend the network reach to users who previously had much more limited communications,” Edwards said. “To that end, older architectures have given way to more dynamic, flexible communications solutions.”

One such solution comes in the form of a “satellite hot spot.”

In a traditional setup, a satellite link might provide simple voice connectivity. All those smart phone apps? Out of reach. In the hot spot paradigm, a Wi-Fi hub captures the satellite signal and make it available to nearby users, much like an ordinary Internet hot spot.

“Today our core market is still a handheld satellite phone, but that is mostly used for outbound calls. It’s got an antenna that sticks up a few inches over your head. It is not convenient just to put it in your pocket and leave the antenna up. So you don’t typically get inbound calls,” said Jake Rembert, a vice president with satellite service provider Globalstar.

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“For federal, it means I can do just about anything I would do sitting in my office from the middle of nowhere. It becomes very small and very portable,” Rembert said.

The idea has been embraced by such major industry player as Iridium, which recently launched its Iridium GO! hot spot solution. “Now when users find themselves outside of terrestrial networks, they can continue to communicate in ways they are accustomed,” said Scott Scheimreif, the company’s executive vice president of government programs.

While technology and consumer expectation drive these advances, at the end of the day it may well be the military that pushes COMSATCOM to new heights. Few military satellites are actually used for communications, but emerging military requirements often mirror those of their civilian counterparts.

“The parallels between the requirements of the military user and the user who may be doing drug interdiction and border protection are very similar,” said Andrew Ruszkowski, chief commercial officer at satellite operator XTAR.

“It’s about situational awareness. It’s about being able to cover large areas of territory quickly and still be able to link back to where that data can be used for responses,” he said. “The military has driven the development of these technologies, and now they are going to be appearing in the civilian government community more regularly going forward.”■

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