Spaced Based Initiatives: New Routes and Paths Emerge

 

Cisco’s Internet Router in Space (IRIS) initiative and hosted payloads have been big discussions in recent years, particularly in terms of how they could shape future government and military strategies. The question now is what happens next, and will they transform certain parts of the space business?

On May 7, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket orbited the GEO-1 satellite equipped with a $1.3 billion Space-Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) payload built by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. GEO-1, the first of four SBIRS satellites, consists of infrared sensors that will detect heat coming off of rockets and missiles directed at the United States and provides an example of how government agencies are employing space-based router services.

Even though it is now more than six years after the SBIRS High program introduced the concept of hosted payloads to the communications industry, satellite operators still find themselves answering the question, ‘What is a space-based router and what does it do?’ for potential commercial and government sector customers. The services provided by hosted payloads — modules that are attached to a commercial satellite with independently operated hardware sharing the satellite’s power supply and transponders — have evolved beyond the boundaries of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and observational data collection for civil space agencies and research organizations. The emergence of the space router has brought with it the ability to provide a variety of services for commercial and enterprise customers, enabling IP application users to directly communicate over satellite without having to double-hop data to and from an intermediate Earth station.

Cisco System’s Internet Routing in Space (IRIS), which uses the company’s 18400 Space Router, was the first successful application of a commercially hosted payload when the program was launched on the Space Systems/Loral (SS/L)-built Intelsat 14 satellite in November 2009. The router’s configuration, triggered by a development contract from the U.S. Department of Defense, was designed to merge communications received on various frequency bands and transmit them to multiple users and support network services for voice, video and data communications for the U.S. military from 315 degrees East over the Atlantic Ocean.

Cisco IRIS general manager Greg Pelton is at the head of this charge, and still uses a simple analogy to describe what IRIS can do for a variety of vertical markets. “Think of the user being a train on a track. Operators have 10 tracks where their trains can’t switch tracks or add any other trains on the track because that infrastructure is dedicated to specific trains. When you put IRIS in the mix, managing all the bandwidth as part of the network, those train tracks become an interstate highway where I have 10 lanes and the ability to shift cars between them,” says Pelton. “If a lane is empty, I can put more cars in that lane to get them to their destination faster. My total throughput on the highway is a lot higher than what I have on the railway track. At the same time, if they need to use more than a lane, I can give them space in the other lanes as long as the other customers aren’t using it. So they can burst into the other lanes and make use of them and they can pay for that privilege. This is especially important for video and telepresence, which require much more bandwidth.”

An evaluation of the IRIS service by Cisco and the Pentagon was completed in April 2010, which analyzed the system’s ability to route IP traffic natively on the satellite, while increasing throughput and reducing latency with its built-in Cisco Internetworking Operating System (IOS) software and onboard software-defined radio.

Cisco has had its share of critics as to whether or not space-based networking and hosted payload technology can stay up-to-date on a 15-year-old satellite and if it can co-exist with bent-pipe delivery services. Cisco’s 18400 Space Router found its place as part of TeleCommunication Systems’ (TCS) network infrastructure in February, when Cisco contracted TCS to operate its IRIS solution on the Intelsat IS-14 satellite. The two companies outlined goals to target deployed solutions to government and commercial markets and provide increased bandwidth optimization and application flexibility to the end-to-end Cisco IP.

Pelton says the partnership is an example of how the hosted payload concept has made significant progress during the last year. “The most exciting aspect of where we are now is that we’re on the same page with our customers. There is a much more proactive response from the government this year than there was last year. From our end, TCS’ experience in the government sector helped established valuable foundations for partnerships. TCS provided a bunch of great leads recently at the SATELLITE 2011 show. I think a majority of customers are convinced that a hosted payload’s ability to be updated via software is real and can provide real value; our worries have shifted from our perception in the market to the possibility that we’ll sell out the platform too soon. That’s a good thing to worry about.”

Cisco’s next challenge is filling out services rather than seats, as government customers have yet to figure out what it wants out of its network-based technology, according to Pelton. “We’re trying to establish a long-term plan about 10 years out and come out with a result that includes a combination of what commercial end users want and what will work best for U.S. government users that have been operating in the WGS infrastructure.” 

Increasing Awareness

The Hosted Payload Alliance (HPA), formed in March, brought seven of the satellite industry’s biggest companies — Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, Intelsat General, Iridium Communications, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Orbital Sciences, SES World Skies U.S. Government Solutions and SS/L — to the same table. The broad-based organization’s charter outlined its main mission to increase awareness of hosted payloads as a means of providing the U.S. government with timely and cost-effective space-based capabilities, including communications, Earth observation, remote sensing, research and development, space situational awareness and forecasting electromagnetic solar storms in space.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Lance Lord, a former commander of the Air Force Space Command who managed development, acquisition and operation of U.S. military space and missile systems, has voiced support for HPA and has spoken on behalf of the organization’s potential value in the current U.S. military environment. “Federal budgets for many space programs are being reduced. Hosted payloads present an opportunity for the government to leverage commercial investments to provide access to space,” says Lord. “But there is a lot of work to be done to align the government’s operational requirements and timetables with the commercial constraints of the private sector when it comes to the details of acquiring, designing, manufacturing and deploying payloads into space.”

While Iridum CEO Matt Desch says that he is excited about how hosted payloads will help develop the industry with higher speed services, he admits that the concept does not constitute the entire foundation of his plans for the next-generation Iridium Next constellation. Both Iridium and Orbital Sciences, however, sit as HPA committee members after the two companies entered into an agreement in February, which will see Orbital reserve 20 percent of the hosted payload capacity on Iridium Next.

“Iridium Next hosted payloads should provide between $200 million to $300 million in net cash contributions as well as additional service revenues in 2017 and beyond,” says Desch. “This year will be the most active year we’ll ever have on hosted payloads. This is the year where they all come together — where the rubber meets the road and we’ll see which payloads we’ll be taking with us when we launch Iridium Next and determining which services we’ll be providing to whom. This is really the first full-year for us building Iridium Next, which is quite exciting. We can now share what that design will look like with our partners and we’re able to talk more specifics and features of what’s coming in the future. Our U.S. government service revenues have increased steadily over the past 10 years. Now we are making significant government investments in our channel partners, devices and dedicated gateways.”

In August 2010, Iridium’s MSS rival Inmarsat announced plans to construct three Ka-band satellites to provide bandwidth to commercial military customers. One of the Global Xpress satellites, to be built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, will carry a hosted payload built by Inmarsat. Boeing created a new division — Boeing Commercial Satellite Services — in February to supplement military capacity on its Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) fleet. Three WGS satellites are in orbit, with three more scheduled for launch by late 2012.

Boeing entered the hosted payloads business behind the scenes in 1993, when the company helped the U.S. Navy upgrade its ultra-high frequency (UHF) satellite communications system to host an extremely high frequency (EHF) payload as well as the first military Ka-band payload. The company also built L-band, X-band and Ka-band hosted payloads that have served foreign governments through spacecraft owned by commercial satellite operators. Shortly after the Inmarsat deal was announced, Boeing activated the U.S. Air Force’s WGS-3 satellite, completing the constellation’s Block-1 program and building strength for the next three satellites, which will make up the Block-2 program.

Jim Simpson, vice president of business development for Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, has long believed that the emergence of hosted payloads as a potential to augment military communications, space surveillance, missile warning or Earth observation could push more activity to the commercial side. “This distributed architecture and other alternate architectures are being evaluated to enable an economical approach to meet the needs of the warfighter and is a significant departure from the large multi-mission TSAT approach.”

Coalitions beyond U.S. borders also have been formed based on the hosted payload concept. In May 2010, Eutelsat and the Qatari Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology (ictQatar) announced a strategic alliance to finance, manufacture, insure, launch and operate a communications satellite to be positioned in Eutelsat’s 25.5 East orbital slot. At the time, the alliance was said to represent an evolution in the hosted payload model by placing the responsibility of ownership and operation of a satellite and most of its payload on a commercial operator, while a dedicated payload procured by a government/military customer functions aboard the spacecraft. The benefits of this model are sculpted around a hosted payload owner utilizing the satellite’s power, antenna, transceivers and attitude control, along with ground-based tracking, telemetry and control, while the satellite operator improves fill rates through another customer.

This model has since received endorsement from other international satellite companies, including Spanish operator Hispasat and its CTO Antonio Abad, who in September 2010 admitted that he had been considering hosted payload improvements based on how the simplicity of integration would develop in the next few years. “Hosted payloads are an interesting issue. They are a good opportunity to complement other business plans and increase the size of the satellite. But, scheduling is a challenge and implementing a hosted payload can be a nightmare. It is not an easy thing to do,” says Abad. “Performance is key. We need to deliver properly services to our customers. We want flight proven technology. We don’t take risks. We cannot afford to take risks.”

Risks in hosted payload-scheduling center around the 30-month period that is usually required from the program’s development to launch, however, many government customers consider the 30-month period an advantage compared with its much longer timeframe of launching programs on commercial platforms. Two UHF integrated payloads on commercial Intelsat spacecraft have followed this timeframe and are set to be launched in the next year-and-a-half. One payload will be launched on the IS-22 satellite in the first half of 2012 for the Australian Defense Force and the other will be launched on the IS-27 satellite, slated for orbit in the second half of 2012. In May, SS/L was awarded a contract to manufacture Optus 10 for Australian telecommunications service provider SingTel Optus, which will be launched in 2013. 

The Big Two

The two biggest FSS operators, Intelsat and SES also see strong opportunities to gain more hosted payload type deals. Both companies have already signed deals and expect more to come. Romain Bausch, SES CEO says he is confident more deals are “around the corner” for SES. “We have seen activity from the U.S. government as well as from the European Union (EU). I see hosted payloads in both commercial frequency bands and also in military frequency bands, and we are working on a couple of concrete opportunities here for future satellites. We already have EGNOS on SES-5 and Astra-5B, and CHIRP on SES-2,” he says. “So, we currently have three satellites under procurement with hosted payloads. When planning for future satellites, so satellites we have not yet announced, some of these satellites will likely carry hosted payloads. For all of these growth satellite opportunities, there are hosted payload opportunities to consider. At the end of the day, decisions will be made on the relative interest for us based on the potential restrictions that could be in place for the final make-up of the satellite.”

Intelsat, which has already signed some innovative hosted payload deals could also sign others, “We are optimistic that we will continue to see hosted payload opportunities. We have an FAA payload in the United States, which is on Galaxy 15. We have the IRIS payload, which is with Cisco. That was pretty groundbreaking. We continue to look at opportunities. Every time we launch a satellite, we look for the ability to do a hosted payload. Because, we are by far, the most diversified of the FSS operators, and having 20 percent of our revenues from government services, it allows us to do things that I think others cannot do. So, to get a good return for our investors, and to be competitive for our customers, hosted payloads are key and allow us to be more cost-effective,” says David McGlade, CEO, Intelsat. 

Middle East

Yahsat CEO Jassem Al Zaabi joined the ranks of curious executives looking at the space-based hardware model as part of a long-term strategy, following the services partnership it signed with CapRock Communications in June 2010. “We are open to more partnership-type deals and we could announce new partnership deals relatively soon. We also look for synergies with existing partners to improve things there,” says Al Zaabi. “You have the potential for hosted payloads. These deals are all about efficiency and economies of scale, and minimizing costs. If a hosted payload deal makes financial sense, we will definitely go for it. Are we working on such a scenario today? What I can say is these discussions are taking place all over the industry and we would entertain such options if they made sense.”

Arabsat CEO Khalid Balkheyour has also expressed confidence this year that the operator will wrap-up a hosted payload-type deal in the Middle East. “We think hosted payloads will be a viable way to grow in the next period for Arabsat. At the same time, we are not only looking for partnerships, but we are looking for new orbital locations and new cooperation opportunities neighboring to our region,” he says. “We are looking for partnerships with government entities. Initially, we were hoping to sign a hosted payload deal at the end of last year. However, with government organizations it takes more time than expected. So, hopefully we will reach this type of deal in 2011.”

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