Building New Bridges Between Government and COMSATCOM Providers – Viewing SATCOM as Vital Infrastructure

Historically, Federal agencies and branches of the military have long taken a, “build it yourself,” approach when it comes to implementing new technologies, acquiring new equipment or otherwise launching new solutions or services.  The prevailing thought was that the only way to meet the strict requirements of the military and federal government was to control the process from conception through implementation.  That is changing – and the effects are building new bridges between the U.S. Government (USG) and commercial satellite communication (COMSATCOM) providers.

In particular, there has been tremendous headway recently in terms of the contracting approach with the new Pathfinder initiatives. For example, the commercial SATCOM (COMSATCOM) Pathfinder One effort was an attempt to break the paradigm of purchasing on-orbit COMSATCOM transponders versus leasing bandwidth on the spot market. While COMSATCOM was (and is) normally leased using Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) or Operations and Maintenance funding, Pathfinder One was executed using procurement dollars.  For the first time, the government purchased COMSATCOM as a vital infrastructure instead of a service.

The innovation and mission-enabling utility of Pathfinder has been sustained in the Air Force’s FY2017 budget request for five full iterations that will expand the scope of the effort.  Speaking at a recent Air Force Association breakfast, Mr. John McNellis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Space, Strategic and Intelligence Systems referenced the need to further leverage the commercial space industry: “To secure these capabilities, DoD and the defense industry must continue to expand our partnerships with commercial enterprise to identify the right emerging technologies needed to ensure the nation is secure in space.”

While participating in a recent DoD Workshop, Pete Hoene, President & CEO of SES Space and Defense proposed ways in which to circumnavigate the perceived challenges of institutionalizing the commercial SATCOM offerings into our National Security Space architecture, meet USG security regulations and increase transparency and communication between the private sector and the federal government.

Improve Information Sharing

During his presentation, Pete encouraged private companies to produce more easily digestible information that focused less on product and service offerings, and more on how these solutions can fit into current government architectures, drive cost-savings, reduce resource requirements and enable the use of next generation technologies. Also, as media consumption changes, he encouraged satellite companies to change with it. This means producing videos, tutorials, apps, infographics and other new forms of media and making it more accessible to decision makers.

Pete also encouraged companies to stop using industry panel presentations to espouse corporate selling points. Instead, he encouraged them to focus on suggested approaches that government end users can take back to headquarters.

Private industry wasn’t the only party that could embrace positive change to overcome the gap between COMSATCOM providers and the government, however. There is also work that the government can do to improve the relationship and make cost-saving COMSATCOM solutions more accessible.

Release More RFI’s

According to Pete, the government should release more Requests for Information (RFI’s). It doesn’t hurt military or government organizations to release multiple RFI’s years in advance of a re-compete or a new and emerging requirement on the horizon. This enables COMSATCOM providers the opportunity to provide invaluable feedback for future Requests for Proposals (RFP’s). The government should also work to ensure that commercial strengths and weaknesses are considered before RFP’s are generated.

Increase Forecast to Industry Days

Finally, the government should expand both their Forecast to Industry days as well as making Industry Days available to a larger audience and make them more frequent. This can be accomplished through co-sponsorships with industry associations to help decrease the cost. The USG should ensure that the location of those engagements can accommodate all industry participants, and that there is a live stream available for those that can’t attend. For example, DISA used to provide a 6-12 month electronic forecast to industry, laying out their thoughts on future demand, but hasn’t routinely done this for quite some time. Regarding private industry, Pete felt it imperative that organizations work tirelessly to increase government participation in industry days. He felt this could be accomplished by making events less expensive and easier to fit into tight government budgets.

Across the board, the federal government is looking for commercial solutions to help decrease both the time and cost of accomplishing a mission. COMSATCOM is one of the areas the USG should be considering when looking for these efficiencies from the private sector. By embracing some of the changes proposed above, both parties – the government and COMSATCOM providers – can continue to build bridges of communication and innovation while enabling an environment where cost-saving COMSATCOM solutions are the backbone of government satellite infrastructures.

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