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LEO Satellites Beginning to Deliver for the DoD, But Challenges Remain

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Defense predictions for 2023

In 2022, after years of waiting, we finally started to see low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites come online and begin delivering bandwidth for low-latency applications. It was also the year that the U.S. Department of Defense began to move further toward its goal of creating hybrid networks that combine advanced commercial network technology with satellites in more than one orbital plane.

The first use the DoD is making of the LEO constellations is in morale, welfare, and recreation applications. This past year, Hughes completed the installation of a LEO solution at Thule Air Base on the northwest coast of Greenland where 600 personnel are stationed. A thousand miles from the North Pole, the base is too near the horizon of most geosynchronous satellites flying above the equator. The new OneWeb LEO satellites fly in a near-polar orbit so that at least one satellite is always in range of the ground terminals at Thule. Hughes designed, deployed and manages the network using OneWeb capacity. So now the men and women stationed there have high-speed, low-latency broadband for the first time. The network allows them to have the same online experiences enjoyed by their family and friends back home. The installation demonstrates that the Hughes network can support video conferencing, streaming video, and even interactive games.

But for the DoD to fully take advantage of what these new LEO constellations have to offer, a number of hurdles must be cleared:

  • We have always said that LEO satellites will complement the existing GEO spacecraft, so now we have to work out the best ways to take advantage of what both types of satellites have to offer. This will require developing ruggedized antennas and terminals that can simultaneously connect to both types of satellite.
  • Right now, the LEO operators don’t have enough satellites in orbit to promise the quality of service the DoD has historically required of commercial operators with service-level agreements. The DoD is not going to risk using LEO satellites for critical missions without firm SLAs in place.
  • For the past two decades, the DoD has purchased commercial bandwidth on GEO satellites on a fairly straightforward megahertz per month basis. But due to the complexity of spectrum reuse among thousands of LEO satellites and multiple beams, leasing bandwidth in this manner can be very difficult once a constellation is up.

The ground terminals that can use capacity from both LEO and GEO satellites are a work in progress and are perhaps years away. For now, the best terminals have at least two separate antennas. One is pointed at a fixed GEO satellite. The other is electronically steerable so that it can send to and receive from satellites moving rapidly overhead and can shift from one spacecraft to another without any glitches.

Still farther away is a single antenna that connects to many satellites in various orbits at once—the industry’s Holy Grail. A single terminal that does it all is quite difficult if not impossible to achieve. And while there are many promising technologies and companies at work trying to devise the ultimate antenna, hybrid solutions are sure to prevail for the near future with separate antennas packaged together to help meet DoD requirements.

While challenges remain, LEO constellations are an essential aspect of multi-transport communications including LEO, MEO, GEO and LTE with each having their strong suit.  If we couple these transports with software-defined networking that can route signals over any path on a packet by packet basis, and then apply AI techniques, we have a major advantage in the military’s Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency (PACE) plans for the future.  It is clear that LEO is here to stay, and the DoD will adapt to the differences from their transitional GEO deployments.