What the FCC’s approval really means for the SES MEO satellite constellation

In the past few months, there have been multiple stories in the news about an FCC grant that would enable SES to expand its fleet of O3b Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites by an additional 26 spacecraft. Many of the headlines, including one from Space News, about the FCC’s decision claimed that it would enable SES to expand from an equatorial constellation to a global one. This has raised some interesting questions across the satellite industry and the U.S. Government. To learn more about this topic, we sat down with three members of the SES team, including:

  • Ken Mentasti, Director of NextGen Systems Development at SES Networks
  • Will Lewis, Senior Legal Counsel at SES Networks
  • Mike Blefko, Vice President Business Development at SES Space and Defense

During our conversation, we discussed the FCC approval, the real impact that it will have on the O3b constellation, why this is so important to SES, and why government users should consider the impact of the next generation global fleet, called O3b mPOWER, set to launch in 2021. Here is what they had to say:

Government Satellite Report (GSR): The FCC recently gave SES its blessing to expand the O3b equatorial system to a global system. What does that mean? How are these two things different?

Will Lewis: Effectively, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave us market access and the ability to serve the United States using additional satellites in the space above the United States. Currently, we have 16 Ka Band O3b MEO satellites in equatorial orbit that are authorized by the FCC. This most recent grant gives us the ability to expand that number dramatically.

That’s the first important takeaway from this announcement – an expansion in the number of satellites in the O3b constellation.

What could be even more impactful in the long run is that this grant gives SES the authority to deploy MEO satellites in two different orbits – equatorial orbit and inclined orbit.

That means the O3b satellite constellation could be expanded to deliver coverage from the equator all the way to the poles. This will enable global coverage – the ability to deliver MEO-enabled, high throughput, low latency connectivity virtually anywhere on Earth.

Ken Mentasti: The O3b satellite constellation is evolving, and a new generation of MEO satellites that offer more customization, flexibility and bandwidth than the previous satellites are going to be launched in the near future. This signals a major paradigm shift. The launch of these new satellites and the expansion of the constellation – as enabled by this FCC approval – essentially means that thousands of highly flexible global beamformed beams offering configurable bandwidths and routing will soon be available to deliver connectivity for satellite customers – government or otherwise.

GSR: What motivated SES Networks to pursue expanding the O3b constellation and making it a global system? What is driving demand?

Ken Mentasti: Demand for the O3b satellite constellation has been extremely high. In fact, it will soon outpace the available coverage and bandwidth that exists today. A large part of that is due to a demand for real time applications across all of our market segments. There is incredible demand for high throughput connectivity – ranging from aeronautical and maritime connectivity to services supporting mobile network operators and government customers.

Ultimately, it comes down to what MEO offers – high capacity to practically anywhere on the globe with low latency and with incredible reliability. It comes down to being able to deliver connectivity in places that GEO, fiber or microwave can’t service or can’t service as well.

Mike Blefko: While I cannot speak on behalf of the USG, the services that the O3b constellation offers to our military end users greatly expand the mission capabilities at austere remote locations.  Delivery of terabyte-sized files in a few hours, simultaneous viewing of multiple HD video feeds, 4GLTE over last mile communications links and enterprise utilization of cloud-based applications are the differentiating services enabled by MEO satellites.  All this at a total cost of ownership that is significantly less than historical VSAT services.

GSR: What will a global O3b constellation mean for government users? What capabilities will this give them that they wouldn’t receive from an equatorial system?

Ken Mentasti: Multiple HD video feeds from a single platform can help the military with ISR and intelligence gathering by disseminating actionable intelligence and information to the government user. The applications are almost limitless. In fact, many applications don’t even exist yet that can take advantage of the bandwidth we’ll be capable of delivering. This kind of bandwidth can become a driver of future innovation by eliminating limitations.

The expansion of the O3b MEO constellation can enable global Ka band coverage that can be flexibly allocated globally that has the capability to route traffic wherever and whenever the government needs it. These new satellites will apply the latest and greatest security and encryption. Their steerable beams will be key for risk avoidance and for avoiding interference. And the size of the constellation will give it baked-in resiliency.

All of these things are essential for government and military applications.

Mike Blefko:  The current MEO O3b constellation of 16 satellites that will grow to 20 in 2019 has provided our government users with unmatched throughput (600×600 Mbps) at low latency (<150msec). The next-generation O3b mPOWER system in 2021 will increase this throughput by 10 fold over a gateway-less architecture.  Truly ‘anywhere to anywhere’ connectivity will unleash another satellite industry paradigm shift to make the untethered user more capable, more effective, more productive, and more empowered.

GSR: What is the timeline for the launch of the O3b global satellite system? How long before this is available for government users?

Will Lewis: As is standard with FCC approvals of NGSO systems, SES is required to launch at least half of the 26 additional satellites within six years to maintain the approval.

Those new satellites would all be the next generation of our MEO satellites — O3b mPOWER — with advanced technologies, higher throughput, additional flexibility and increased bandwidth. In addition, the satellites are authorized to operate for both Ka and V band. The initial O3b mPOWER launches are targeted for 2021 and are expected to be for equatorial satellites.

During the course of those six years, SES will be actively assessing the market for satellites in inclined orbit and will respond according to market demand.

To learn more about the ways that commercial satellite services are being used within the military, download the following resources:

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