Satellites Space

The Department of Defense is eager to take advantage of LEO broadband constellations

For US troops on the battlefield and sailors at sea who rely on slow and intermittent satellite connections, high-speed internet stays a pipe dream. Huge constellations of the internet satellites in LEO (low Earth orbit) are ascending to the skies as market for mobile connection continues to soar across the US military, and more are on the verge of deployment.

Geosynchronous (GEO) communications satellites located 36,000 kilometers above the equator have been used by the US Defense Department for decades. The Iridium LEO network, which offers satellite phone as well as narrowband data transmission services, also serves the military. Military users are clamoring for low-latency, broadband solutions from companies like OneWeb, SpaceX, Telesat, and Amazon, which offer to connect the globe via hundreds of satellites in lower orbits than traditional communications satellites.

The US Space Force is laying the basis for the Department of Defense to begin purchasing services from the commercial LEO satcom operators that are just entering the market, as well as future constellations that have yet to be deployed. CSCO, or Commercial Satellite Communication Office, issued a draft request for proposals in September for “Proliferated Low Earth Orbit Satellite-centered Commercial Services.” The final RFP is planned to be released in early 2022, with contract awards following later that year.

The LEO satcom purchase, according to CSCO Director Clare Grason, is part of a bigger Space Force attempt to reform how the government purchases commercial space services. She claimed the draft RFP garnered roughly 20 responses. The final RFP and long-term procurement plan will be influenced by these comments.

Multiple suppliers will be chosen to bid for up to $875 million in orders over a ten-year period under so-referred indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) deals. This form of contract, according to Grason, allows government buyers to upgrade services when suppliers add new capabilities and to on-ramp new participants as they join the market. CSCO purchases satcom services for the whole Defense Department, therefore it needs a variety of solutions to meet the needs of various clients, according to Grason.

Broadband connectivity in the field is becoming increasingly important for military forces deployed around the world to share information, perform virtual training activities, practice remote medical, and other operations that demand more bandwidth and less latency. While some DoD customers may choose preconfigured fee-for-service plans similar to those offered by cellular providers, Grason said, “we’re also exploring for really creative methods to incorporate in proliferated LEO as well as other capabilities.”

Partnerships, where the government has exclusive access to a section of a commercial constellation, are one of the solutions being examined. “We’re talking to some companies about deploying or planning to launch thousands of satellites and operating the system as the federated network,” Grason added. “The government could essentially buy its constellation within a constellation and administer it with a level of autonomy we haven’t seen with commercial collaborations before.”

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