The U.S. government has a variety of existing contracts to meet its increasing demand for communication services but the past practice of building and launching dedicated government satellites to fulfill such needs is “far too expensive,” said Mary Ann Elliott, one of the most prominent female entrepreneurs in the satellite and space community.
Alternatives to current satellite procurement policies are warranted for U.S. military, intelligence and other government users to address their “ever-expanding requirements” for digital communications to remote locations, Elliott advised.
Long-range projections for the federal government to boost its communications capacity significantly are spurring private sector satellite operators to propose ways to turn the U.S. government into a customer more frequently than today, she added.
At Arrowhead, Elliott implemented satellite solutions for the U.S. government, which has become the satellite industry’s fastest-growing customer. She first entered the communications industry through positions with Motorola's wireless terrestrial business and then moved into satellite navigation and communications as part of the management teams at COMSAT, Contel ASC, Talon Technology and Navidyne.
An “obvious choice” is to look at hosted payloads and the historical precedence of using commercial satellites to satisfy the communication needs of the government, Elliott explained. An example that took place during the early years of hosted payloads featured the U.S. Navy’s creative way of securing additional UHF capacity to fill the gap between its capabilities at the time and its future requirements, Elliott said.
“In that instance, COMSAT worked with the Navy to fill the void and, at the same time, used the Navy’s requirement as the foundation to build the world’s first commercial maritime satellite network, Marisat,” Elliott said.
“The project was a tremendous success for both parties, Marisat was the precursor to the Inmarsat system of today and the Navy had UHF capacity for many years. The overwhelming success of this project was born out of a mutual need by two different entities working together for the common good of both.”
A similar situation is emerging today as the U.S. government officials consider which missions might best be served by putting payloads on commercial satellites that can be launched faster and less expensively than satellites devoted solely to government use, said Elliott, who founded Arrowhead Global Solutions in 1991.
She grew it from a company that produced $64,000 in revenues during Arrowhead’s first year to generate almost $100 million in 2005 largely by helping the government to meet its communications needs. Hosted payloads can satisfy the U.S. government’s “timeline and capacity requirements,” Elliott said.
The use of “creative negotiating” by the government with major carriers also can enhance the cost-effectiveness of such partnerships, she added. “The carriers are seeking to build out their networks in frequency bands, other than C- and Ku-, and solidify a long-term anchor client that is unlikely to have an alternative in our lifetime,” Elliott said.
“However, many challenges can and will get in the way, and increase the cost to functioning payloads on orbit.” The U.S. government procurement process must focus on requirements such as frequencies, coverage area, power and price, Elliott said. The carriers then can address the “numerous operational and technical challenges” that will arise from combining their network and customer requirements with a government payload, she added. “Technical and operational issues can be challenging but generally can be addressed,” Elliott said.
Ultimately, a final orbital location and a satellite design can be found to gain approval from both the government client and the carrier that provides the communications services, Elliott said. Problems arise when either party changes its requirements in the midst of that delicate process, Elliott said.
Typically, it is the government that seeks to tweak one or more areas of the satellite’s design, she added. “Any change increases build and launch costs, and can significantly impact delivery schedules, Elliott said. “Last, there is a point in the build stage where no further changes can be made.”
The benefits of using hosted payloads far outweigh the drawbacks of meeting capacity requirements for “deployed warriors” in the battlefields, as well as remote unmanned vehicles, with imagery data in a timely manner, Elliott said.
The negatives include, but are not limited to, using satellites that are not built to military specifications, Elliott said. Other complications include the use of a spacecraft that is not “hardened” to safeguard against attack and is possibly not deployed in a preferred orbital location to satisfy future government requirements, Elliott said. “For the carriers, a hosted payload provides the ability to plan and forecast long-term revenues, lower their financing costs and increase profits,” Elliott said.
“They fully understand that once the government end users’ communications requirements are met, they will continue for at a minimum the next ten years and longer.”
Paul Dykewicz is a seasoned satellite industry journalist who has covered the development of satellite television, satellite radio, satellite broadband and hosted payloads.