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Comtech Chief Strategy Officer Explains the Value of Hybrid Networks

By Rachel Jewett | June 3, 2024

Comtech Chief Strategy Officer Daniel Gizinski (Photo by Comtech)

Comtech Chief Strategy Officer Daniel Gizinski spoke with Via Satellite about trends impacting the satellite communications defense market, and how Comtech designs solutions to meet changes in the market. Gizinski explains why hybrid networks are the key to resilient communications, and the importance of future-proofing satellite connectivity to meet evolving user demands and technological advancements.

He also gives an update on Comtech’s work for the Enterprise Digital Intermediate Frequency Multi-Carrier (EDIM) modems contract in support of U.S. Army satellite communications digitization and modernization programs.

VIA SATELLITE: The Department of Defense recently released the Commercial Space Integration strategy and the Space Force released its Commercial Strategy as well. What is your reaction to those strategies?

Gizinski: We’re thrilled to see that continuing commitment to commercial space. It shows that what we’ve heard at events over the last couple of years is more than just talk and it’s moving forward into policy. The Department of Defense (DoD) is a very large organization. It takes a long time to work through changing policies, changing practices and how that actually rolls out. We’ve seen a really high level of commitment to taking advantage of the benefits of commercial satellites.

In the early days of satcom, the vast majority of satellites launched were government-owned, government-operated in Geostationary Orbit (GEO). Today we’re seeing a shift — the majority of communication satellites on orbit are commercially owned and commercially operated. I think that both the Space Force and the broader DoD recognize an opportunity to take advantage of that commercial innovation.

The Space Force and the DoD have both been very thoughtful in adopting strategies that make sense to leverage some off the shelf capabilities, but at the same time being thoughtful to keep end-to-end systems integration capability in house for the programs where it’s necessary. We all recognize that commercial space isn’t going to solve all of the problems at play here. It’s building in the tools and approaches that allow for those systems to coexist and interoperate as much as possible. From Comtech’s perspective, we’re really excited about bringing forward commercial innovations to help solve some of those challenging problems.

VIA SATELLITE: Do you notice a shift in position from the government in these strategies?

Gizinski: From our perspective, there are not a lot of big surprises in the two recently released policies. They align with a lot of what has been discussed over the last couple of years. One of the things that both the Space Force and broader DoD have done exceptionally well is trial ideas with industry. They collect feedback thoughtfully. A lot of what you see in those policies is a consensus position that results from a very collaborative discussion. Those policies formalize things that we’ve been talking about for the last couple of years.

VIA SATELLITE: The Commercial Space Strategy mentioned satcom capabilities, specifically resiliency and multi-orbit communications. What opportunities do you see here for Comtech?

Gizinski: We’re thrilled by a couple of things. From a Comtech perspective, we see big programs like the Army’s Enterprise Digital Intermediate Frequency Multi-Carrier (EDIM) modem as one of the first examples of what next-generation capabilities look like. It’s an opportunity to bring to bear some of the best of defense and best of commercial into a single flexible product that allows for customers to roam on multiple networks.

We’ve been talking about multi-orbit and even hybrid networks — multiple orbits as well as terrestrial and troposcatter connectivity — as one of the keys to resiliency. Trying to build a single very reliable network tends to be more expensive than putting together multiple networks and building in the flexibility and the adaptability to roam across each of those. We’ve had the opportunity with some of the troposcatter programs to bridge those as a corollary capability for satellite communications. That shows the core building blocks necessary to do those sorts of things successfully alongside each other as complementary capabilities.

A few years ago, it was all about LEO versus GEO or MEO. The conversation has shifted to recognize that the best available network and the ability to leverage multiple paths based on the realistic scenarios present is the most likely outcome. That’s something that we’ve been passionate about for a number of years and we’re starting to see customers recognize the value of hybrid networks.

VIA SATELLITE: How is Comtech working on capabilities to support the DoD’s vision of Joint All-Domain Command and Control, JADC2?

Gizinski: I think of JADC2 and Coalition JADC2 as a specialized case of a hybrid network — it’s the desire to connect sensors to shooters, at a data layer level, and to get the right information to the right person as quickly as possible. Fundamentally, it’s the same problem that we’re trying to solve with any hybrid network — leveraging the best available network paths, building up an inherently scalable architecture, and providing your users with the best available connectivity.

There are a few things that Comtech has thought through when we look at JADC2 and what’s required to support that effectively. One is defining interface standards around boxes. In the old days of satcom, everyone developed their own standards, but that creates a lot of friction. Open standards provide a clear understanding of what happens inside that box. The interfaces are very well defined as a key to making that interoperable and scalable. There’s no massive engineering effort required to scale the network.

One of the challenges that comes with CJADC2 is that the network is changing all the time. When you add in coalition forces — CJADC2 — it creates a very complex scenario where not only do you have to plan for U.S. and joint forces, but potentially anyone else may want to connect and pull data from that network. Security policy and data management policies have to be updated to support that vision. That becomes particularly challenging when you’re leveraging legacy satcom networks that were designed to be a stovepipe. We’re starting to see some exciting things with a move toward zero trust security architectures. We’re well-positioned to partner with some of our customers to make that a reality.

VIA SATELLITE: How does Comtech’s work on the EDIM contract fit into broader JADC2 goals?

Gizinski: EDIM demonstrates the thoughtfulness in the design and architecture of both that program and the product. It allows a transition from what’s there in the field today to where they want to be. One of the challenges with modernizing military infrastructures is that the recapitalization cycle can be 25 to 30 years. If you start replacing equipment today, it might be 30 years before you get the last piece of equipment out of the field. EDIM serves as the bridge from the legacy platforms of the past all the way to future capabilities.

It provides a legacy mode where it’s interoperable with the EBEM, the Enhanced Bandwidth Efficient Modems, part of a program that was originally awarded in 2003 and will be supported under this. It will continue to support those modems as long as they’re in the field. It supports high-end, high data rate commercial standard waveforms today, and it provides digital intermediate frequency interfaces to allow for that transition into the digitized future of satcom. It recognizes that there might be another 15 years of support for some of these legacy platforms and the world is going to continue to change and grow and adapt between here and there, but you can’t drop support for those legacy platforms.

VIA SATELLITE: What milestones are on the horizon for the EDIM program this year?

Gizinski: The hardware has to be ready for final acceptance testing toward the end of the year, with the expectation that we go into the certification cycle after that. As is often the case with government-purpose modems, there’s an extended certification process. We expect that to take place over the following year.

VIA SATELLITE: You’ve been talking about the need for defense networks to be more interoperable and more flexible. What does that look like in practice for Comtech?

Gizinski: There’s a couple of things that come into play here. The first thing that we look at is that transition toward digitization. The more of the system that can be digitized, the more flexibility a customer or an operator has in how they operate that system. The industry has gone through a transition in the last five to seven years in terms of the makeup of users, customers and operator demands on any given satellite network. There’s been a major shift on the commercial side away from TV broadcast towards other forms of connectivity. On the defense side, the requirements for data and throughput have gone up dramatically. The expectations of satellite bandwidth available to a user terminal in some cases have gone up by a factor of 100. Baking in the level of flexibility to change and adapt based on how systems evolve and how user requirements continue to change is key. Digitization allows for and supports that.

The second thing we look at is to effectively virtualize and provide that level of flexibility for our customer. One of the use cases on the EDIM modem, which provides for eight channels of connectivity. You can spin up legacy mode carriers, modern mode carriers, or a next-gen capability, all at the same time based on the mission requirements. It’s a matter of seconds for reconfiguration compared to in the past what would have been a move from one piece of hardware to another.

We’ve grown to expect that in our personal lives — you expect to download whatever app you need on your phone, on demand. To a certain extent, that’s still a future state for satellite connectivity and that’s something we’re working hard to make a reality.

VIA SATELLITE: Comtech has been a part of the standards discussions with DIFI and the Wave Consortium. How do the standards fit in with these issues?

Gizinski: The Digital Interface Consortium (DIFI) defines the physical layer of what you’re putting together and how those interfaces work. That is absolutely critical. We’re glad to see that there’s been a lot of adoption. We have several DoD services that have joined the different consortium, and the Army actually adopted it as part of the standard for the EDIM program. There’s a broad industry consortium of folks that are working to make sure that that standard is current and useful and levels the playing field for those seeking to build hardware.

The Wave Consortium is taking the next step. Rather than just being a physical interface definition, it aims to figure out how to cultivate the ecosystem that allows for flexibility to spin up new capabilities with minimal proprietary hardware deployed alongside a particular system. That is the holy grail of flexibility and future capability. We’re really excited about the progress that the Wave Consortium is making and the future flexibility that provides customers.

VIA SATELLITE: How do you see the balance of integrating commercial capabilities versus purpose-built networks for the DoD?

Gizinski: There are certain systems that you expect to see continued to be built and run by the DoD as a purpose-built system where there’s no commercial business case or use case that’s appropriate — things like nuclear command and control, certain missile warning and missile tracking systems. But commercial satcom offers the opportunity to deploy on a scale that you wouldn’t have on the DoD side. Comtech’s commercial satellite business, for example, has products operating in over 200 100 countries on all seven continents organically today. That’s a level of scale you’re unlikely to see in a DoD program. The subscriber numbers for commercial satcom connectivity are several orders of magnitude higher than the Department of Defense will ever need. The commercial business case helps subsidize some of those costs and helps free up some capital to deploy against those purpose-built systems that are often exquisite. Commercial systems provide a lot of freedom and flexibility.

VIA SATELLITE: What are some things that could improve the relationship between the commercial satellite industry and the DoD?

Gizinski: Over the last few years there’s been a lot more open communication and collaboration where both sides have a frank and open conversation about the unique challenges that they’re facing and how we can work more effectively together. There’s a lot more flexibility in both directions.

There are certain restrictions around how the DoD can procure different capabilities. On the commercial side, we’ve been able to come up with some clever approaches to restructure our offerings to better fit within those acquisition regulations. At the same time, we’ve seen the DoD lean forward to leverage Other Transaction Authority (OTA) vehicles to sample commercial capabilities before baking it into a program of record. The shift toward Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Appropriations (RDT&E) has been an adjustment on both sides. It’s a different development cycle than we have seen in the past. We are grateful for the increased communication and collaboration. We’re glad to see the high level of flexibility being adopted on both sides.

VIA SATELLITE: Are there any other trends or issues that you would like to highlight that impact how Comtech works with the DoD?

Gizinski: The shift toward resilient, hybrid networks is really exciting across the industry. I think there’s an opportunity to have a network that’s built differently — one that looks different and that provides an end user a higher degree of flexibility. There’s a thoughtful consideration to how you secure those networks. Anytime you provide more openings, you increase the attack surface. The shift toward zero trust principles raises the question of how to build in the right levels of security, the authentication approaches, the least privilege principles, in a way that’s lightweight and simple for users is a huge challenge.

Like how the iPhone moved toward biometrics, how do you bring in clever techniques that are both more secure, and also less of a burden on the user? How do you make cybersecurity as easy as possible for the end user while still maintaining a really high level of cybersecurity? From Comtech’s perspective, we value the opportunity to design systems and be thoughtful about security from day zero. We take lessons learned from the field and make sure that gets fed into the next generation of products.