Embracing disruptive technologies is never easy, regardless of the industry. But in 2020 the federal government embraced new technologies like never before. Because of the pandemic and the need to shift to remote work and mission delivery where possible, it’s estimated that the federal government achieved about 5 years’ worth of digital transformation in the five months from April to September. Of course, there are still areas where digital transformation lags, typically connected to complexity and security. One of these areas is satellite communications. However, industry experts recently suggested that exploring the lessons learned from cloud adoption, which was a slow process, could be applied to COMSATCOM. While the process to drive cultural change might be arduous, the results, according to the experts will be well worth it. Read on to learn why.
Replacing older, aging technologies with the newer version of the same thing is easy. If a laptop gets old and its hardware no longer meets software minimum requirements, just replace it with a new one that does. Simple.
But what isn’t as simple is embracing new, disruptive technologies that require a massive change to the organization, its culture, or its way of thinking. The adoption of these technologies and the organizational changes that enable it takes time. It requires buy-in from the highest levels. And it often requires an organization to take risks and doing things that may be uncomfortable.
Cloud adoption was like that – especially within the government and military.
To embrace the cloud, government and military organizations had to answer a difficult question, “Does control only come from ownership?” They had to shake decades of thinking and a deep cultural belief that to truly control and secure something, they needed to own every part of it outright.
For the agencies and organizations that were able to overcome those cultural objections and put aside their need to own everything, there were significant rewards.
The embrace of the cloud-enabled immense scalability, agility, and cost savings. It also opened the door to digital transformation and the advanced technologies that are revolutionizing government. But those benefits came at the cost of making difficult decisions and taking risks – doing things in a way that went against decades of doing business a certain way.
According to Brad Grady, a Principal Analyst at space and satellite industry analyst firm, Northern Sky Research, and the SVP of Global Government at SES, Nicole Robinson, the next logical step in how the government and military embrace satellite communications could require a similar change in culture, approach, and thinking. But – much like with the cloud – if the government and military are able to change “business as usual,” the benefits could be equally immense.
New Solutions to Meet Massive Bandwidth Appetites
During a recent webinar for press and industry experts entitled, “The Government Network Architecture of the Future,” Grady and Robinson laid out how the next generation of commercial satellites and satellite capabilities could usher in a new era in connectivity.
During their panel discussion, the two satellite experts explained how embracing commercial capabilities could be the best and most effective way to meet the government’s rapidly-increasing appetite for bandwidth at the edge. What is driving that appetite? According to Brad, it’s a combination of three converging trends– improvements in ISR, increasing communications requirements, and a fundamental change in operations:
“ISR demands are on the rise. There are more sensors on more platforms…within that, each sensor is getting a higher and higher resolution. Operations are becoming more real–time, with government and military operators looking to bring collaboration tools and services to the edge. Deployments are also becoming more complex.”
To meet these requirements, government and military leaders need a low-latency, high-throughput satellite solution capable of delivering fiber-like connectivity to the edge – places where terrestrial networks are unavailable, denied, or untrusted. And those low-latency and high throughput satellite capabilities are not currently available through the military’s own communications satellites.
“There is no broadband, non-GEO government system that is operating today,” Brad explained. “There is no multi-orbit government architecture that offers multi-gigabyte [connectivity] out there today.”
They are available through commercial providers, however.
Over the past decade, the satellite industry has been investing heavily and innovating new capabilities and solutions. The result has been the evolution of high throughput satellites (HTS) that utilize multiple, more powerful spot beams to deliver higher throughputs and bandwidth. There has also been a proliferation of HTS in orbits closer to Earth than geostationary (GEO) orbit – enabling the delivery of high throughput connectivity with low latencies.
But to embrace and adopt these solutions would require a massive sea-change in how the government and military have traditionally acquired satellite solutions.
From Purpose-Built to Combined Military-Commercial Architecture
Historically, when the government and military wanted to acquire satellite capacity, they commissioned a company to build them a satellite to their specifications that they then launched into space and operated themselves. They controlled these satellites and knew they were secure because they owned and operated them.
Unfortunately, the existing wideband communications satellites that the military owns are not high throughput satellites and they’re all in the GEO orbit. To construct and launch their own HTS satellite at an orbit closer to Earth – Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) or Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) – would take years and be extremely expensive. Utilizing commercial capabilities gives the government and military access to these technologies and orbits immediately, and at a fraction of the price.
“…instead of continuing to buy government-owned satellites…take a step back,” Nicole suggested. “Instead of spending Herculean amounts of taxpayer dollars to get yesterday’s SATCOM links, partner with satellite operators that are already ahead of the curve.”
But that means forsaking old satellite acquisition models and partnering with industry to make COMSATCOM solutions an integrated part of a combined government and commercial satellite architecture.
“Maybe, instead of thinking about who owns it, think about having a combined architecture,” Nicole explained. “It’s time to debunk the myth of what commercial and military satellites should and could do. Instead of having the ongoing ‘us vs them’ conversation, we need to have a ‘we’ view of the world.”
This concept of a combined, integrated satellite architecture is something that senior leadership within the military has claimed to embrace. In fact, the inaugural Chief of Space Operations at the United States Space Force, General John W. “Jay” Raymond, committed to, “…continue engaging commercial partners to evaluate opportunities that may complement or possibly replace portions of a traditional military SATCOM purpose-built system.”
But large changes in vision, culture, and approach are never simple, fast, or easy, and many within the military have concerns that giving up ownership of satellites will decrease security and control.
Much like with cloud adoption, if the government and military can put aside their belief that control can only come with ownership, there are considerable benefits they can realize from embracing commercial satellites. Many of those benefits are a result of satellite operators innovating over time to meet the requirements and solve the problems of their commercial customers.
“Industry has always been out front,” Brad said. “They’ve always been innovating because they have lots of commercial customers that are doing very innovative things and solving very complicated problems that look a lot like government problems.”
To bring these commercial benefits and innovations to the military, and to make this vision of a combined satellite architecture possible, there needs to be a change in how the military works with its commercial partners. This means giving the industry a seat at the table, working with them to identify and shape requirements in advance of issuing task orders and challenging them to innovate on not just technologies, but also on business models.
“The U.S. military is starting to acknowledge they need to do more than just solve the connection – issuing task orders and buying capacity,” Brad explained. “That’s an old paradigm that’s dead on arrival now.”
Cloud adoption was difficult and slow in the government. It took a fundamental change in how government-operated and a movement away from the culture and belief of having to own everything to ensure control and security. However, those tough changes ushered in a wave of new innovation that is revolutionizing government. The same lessons learned from cloud adoption can be applied to commercial satellite. The organizational and cultural changes will be significant, but the access to connectivity and capability that COMSATCOM will deliver could be just as revolutionary for our government.