DoD leases second MEO beam to overcome connectivity challenges

Earlier this week, it was announced that the United States Department of Defense (DoD) has signed a five-year contract to lease a second MEO satellite beam. The contract was with SES Space and Defense, and will the DoD access to additional connectivity and throughput via the company’s Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), high throughput, low latency satellite fleet.

As per the official press release announcing the contract, the DoD will receive a solution which includes:

“…an additional 432 MHz satellite beam operating at less than 200 milliseconds roundtrip, a full duplex link, gateway access, transportable 2.4m AvL terminals, terrestrial backhaul, installation services and 24/7/365 operations and maintenance activities.”

To get a better understanding of why the DoD is embracing MEO satellite solutions, we sat down with COL (R) Randall “Randy” Bland, the Senior Director for Integrated Development at SES Space and Defense, and a frequent contributor to the Government Satellite Report.

During our discussion, we asked Randy why the DoD needs access to a low latency, high throughput satellite solution, the capabilities these beams deliver to the military and what lessons were learned from the first beam that the DoD leased from SES Space and Defense. Here is what Randy had to say:

Government Satellite Report (GSR): MEO satellite constellations are touted as offering lower latency and higher throughput. What kinds of military applications require this type of bandwidth?

Randy Bland: Honestly, MEO satellites and GEO satellite constellations are essential for fulfilling any requirement to move large amounts of information from the edge of the network that does not have ready access to fiber connectivity. But when you need to move big files – such as those generated by capturing HD video, or applications that are hosted in a “cloud-like” fashion, the benefits from having the increased throughputs and low latency offered by MEO satellites is “game changing.”

A great example of these larger files would be those generated from [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR)] missions. We have all of these sensors on ISR platforms. These sensors collect a lot of HD information which is stored as large files. But that information – these files – are collected and aggregated in theater.

They need to have that information processed, exploited and used to generate actionable insights. But don’t want to process and exploit it at the edge. This means that it needs to be transferred back to where that process is done. The people who do the processing and exploiting of that data are generally “off shore.”  The use of MEO satellites gives the military the ability to deliver those large files – the sensitive ISR information – back to those people that aren’t in theater, but need to process, share and exploit it.

Also, there is a trend in IT for things to be cloud-based and web-based. All of these enterprise solutions and cloud solutions can be impacted greatly by latency. By utilizing a satellite solution that is physically closer to the Earth, the military can greatly reduce latency and get higher performance for any of their enterprise Web-based and applications. The desired outcome is to have these applications perform just as they would if they were connected “locally”.

GSR: This new contract is for the lease of a second MEO beam for use by the DoD. When did the first beam come into use? What types of applications was the first beam used for? How will the use cases for this second beam differ?

Randy Bland: The first beam came into operation and into use in November. That was used to move large files and large amounts of data – that was the principal application. After a few months of using the service it was quickly apparent that it was useful for other applications as well, including enterprise applications. The DoD started using it for email, portal, video teleconferencing (VTC) and other enterprise applications (identity management, security management, directory services, etc.) as well.

The initial concept was to just move large amounts of information around, but the DoD found that there were just so many other uses for fiber-like connectivity over satellites.

I think the second beam is going to be very similar. The DoD anticipates that it’ll be used for moving large files, but I think they’ll use it much more quickly to overcome enterprise problems and for enterprise applications. [The DoD] knows the potential that MEO has for delivering enterprise applications now, and I anticipate that they’ll use their second beam for that almost immediately.

GSR: Will there be new connectivity sites as part of the contract? Which continents will be connected?

Randy Bland: I’m not at liberty to really disclose too much information about the geographic area that these beams encompass, but I will say that one is more northern-oriented than the other. The military is clearly looking to increase the geographic area in which this connectivity is available.

GSR: How was the O3b satellite service from the first beam perceived? What about the O3b constellation worked for the DoD? What made them look to lease a second beam?

Randy Bland: They were really surprised by how reliable it was, and how it was so much like fiber.

When you compare it to GEO SATCOM, there is a huge difference between almost 600 milliseconds of latency and 125 milliseconds of latency. There is such a huge difference between 200 MHz throughput at that latency versus what they were getting with GEO – which was most likely a 40 MHz pipe with 600 milliseconds of latency.

That difference was extremely impressive and extremely surprising to our contacts within the DoD. I don’t think they anticipated receiving the throughputs, bandwidth and latency that they received from MEO. It’s certainly a pleasant surprise for them. NO surprise to us. We done a host of trials and proofs of concept that we knew exactly what to expect.

GSR: What were some lessons learned and best practices identified from the first DoD MEO beam?

Randy Bland: You don’t have to lease an entire beam. But when you do lease an entire beam, you receive a remarkable amount of flexibility in the management of that beam. Inside that beam, you have the ability to move sites around and stand up new sites. It’s just much more flexible.

There’s also remarkable value and cost savings. The per-megabit cost is driven down significantly by leasing an entire beam. In fact, I would say that the current cost to the DoD is actually lower than what the government sometimes pays for GEO satellite, all because they leased the whole beam.

The cost savings and flexibility the DoD received from leasing the first beam certainly factored into their decision to lease the entirety of the second beam. It could also determine how the military acquires satellite services moving forward.

GSR: What additional ways could you see the DoD utilizing the connectivity of MEO satellites? Are there additional regions or additional use cases that could benefit from the high throughput, low latency connectivity that MEO satellites deliver?

Randy Bland: Anywhere where they don’t have connectivity is a potential area for MEO usage – anywhere where they have unreliable networks or unreliable fiber.

I think the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) Area of Responsibility (AOR) has a remarkable need for MEO satellite connectivity – just based on my experience and what demand signals are coming from the PACOM AOR.

The Pacific theater struggles with what we call the “Tyranny of Distance.” The entire theater is significantly spread out over great distance and highly segmented by large bodies of water, which negatively impacts operations. That AOR isn’t as well connected as others, and it’s home to increasingly active adversaries.

To enable connectivity, the DoD would need to lay and rely on long-haul, undersea fiber. That fiber would require a large amount of time and cost to implement, and it would then exist as both a single point of failure and potential Achilles heel for military operations in the area. MEO satellite could be a high throughput, low latency alternative to long-haul fiber in that area – or could serve as a backup to fiber.

For additional information on MEO satellites and their uses for federal government and military operations, download the following resources:


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