X-band offers cure for congested spectrum

Service providers find way to offer reliable satellite coverage, robust transmission without the clutter

Operations in Southwest Asia have created an insatiable demand for satellite communications capacity — a demand that commercial providers have largely filled.

However, DOD has to compete for available capacity on commercial satellites with media and telecommunications companies and other high-volume satellite communications customers.

One of those providers is Xtar, a joint venture of Loral Space and Communications and Hisdesat Sevicios Estratégicos. Xtar's commercial X-band service is now available as part of the Defense Information Systems Agency's Defense Information Systems Network Satellite Transmission Services-Global program and through the General Services Administration.

“Hisdesat was formed to basically manage the Spanish military communications satellite program,” said Denis Curtin, Xtar’s chief operating officer. “They do some other things, but that was the first reason. Xtar is 56 percent owned by Loral, 44 percent owned by Hisdesat, and is a U.S. managed company.”

Xtar operates on two X-band satellites, Curtin said. “We have a satellite that the partnership owns called Xtar-Eur, which is at 29 degrees east, and we have a payload on the satellite that Hisdesat owns called Spainsat, which is their satellite that allows them to participate in NATO and other alliances, and it has two payloads — totally separate payloads, different antennas, one for them and one for us, which we call Xtar-Lant. Spainsat is at 30 degrees west, which means we have coverage from Denver east all the way to Indonesia, with the two satellites with dual coverage of Europe and Africa and the Middle East. And we have, with the 29 degrees east satellite, excellent coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

X-band offers several advantages, said Bill Schmidt, Xtar's vice president of Government Services. “One of the things that our user community finds that they like about our satellites is that it does operate in the X-band frequency, so it's extremely robust in adverse [conditions] — rain, dust, jungle, many of the areas where we seem to be operating today. Secondly, they do not operate in conflict with other commercial operators. The government does use quite a bit of Ku, Ka and C band that are all considered to be commercial spectrums. But in any of the carriers that have those frequencies on their satellites, the government finds themselves in competition with commercial users — CNN, NBC, Citibank, as an example. So, with us, it’s only for government use, so there's not quite so much contention.”

With the cancellation of the Transformational Communications Satellite (TSAT) program, the military has been scrambling to grab commercial capacity to make up the difference. Even with other military-owned satellite launches on the horizon, including the Wideband Global Satcom, Advanced Extreme High Frequency and Mobile User Objective System programs, experts inside and outside DOD say demand for commercial satellite capacity will continue to grow.

“One of the things that we're seeing, even with the cancellation of TSAT, is DOD's own internally generated forecasts show a rather dramatic increase over the foreseeable future of the need for commercial capacity,” Schmidt said. Unmanned aerial vehicles "are one of the areas that seems to be driving this, as we're using more and more UAVs, and they're starting to get down to the battalion and even the company level. And then here in the U.S., we're seeing state governments and some of the civil agencies like border protection utilizing more UAVs. It keeps generating more and more demand and increasing demand on available satellite capacity.”

“We've been selling a lot of X-band because there hasn't been a lot of Ku band available,” Curtin said. Although new commercial Ku-band satellites are entering orbit, because of a previous reluctance to buy hosted payloads — which are dedicated sets of transponders on commercial satellites — or chunks of satellites’ capacity in advance, “the industry is largely going out with newer satellites and preselling all of the capacity or as much of it as possible to commercial interests,” Curtin said. “Various commercial operators have talked about how they've not been able to sit down with the U.S. government and plan together, so even though there are new satellites going up, I think there will still be a push and shove to get capacity because we haven't had this cooperation with the government.”

That is changing with DISA's announcement of the DISA/GSA joint Future Comsatcom Services Acquisition. Hosted payloads were part of the equation for the 2011 procurement announced in July, said Bruce Bennett, head of DISA's Satcom, Teleport and Services program office.

“We're totally in favor of that,” Curtin said. “That's a good way to do it, and it's the next step in cooperation with them where you plug in a hole that you have in a certain area with a certain frequency.”

Because there are still so few X-band satellites in orbit — the German government is preparing its own system for launch, and Xtar has a plan in the works for coverage in the Pacific — X band will still offer less potential contention for spectrum for some time, Curtin said. “Our ultimate goal is to have a global system, with additional capacity.”

About the Author

Sean Gallagher is senior contributing editor for Defense Systems.

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