New direct-to-cell satellite tech could disrupt billion-dollar military satcom programs (2024)

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Col. Eric Felt: Direct-to-cell services conceivably could enhance or replace dedicated narrowband satcom systems like the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS)

New direct-to-cell satellite tech could disrupt billion-dollar military satcom programs (1)bySandra Erwin

New direct-to-cell satellite tech could disrupt billion-dollar military satcom programs (2)
New direct-to-cell satellite tech could disrupt billion-dollar military satcom programs (3)

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ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Space Force is closely watching the development of commercial satellite communications services that allow standard smartphones to connect directly to satellites, seeing the technology as potentially disruptive to existing military narrowband satcom systems like MUOS, officials said June 10.

“We view direct-to-cell as a really disruptive thing,” said Col. Eric Felt, director of space architecture at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.

Speaking at SAE Media Group’s Milsatcom USA conference, Felt said his office is tracking developments in commercial satellite communications such as direct-to-cell services. These services could potentially enhance or replace dedicated military narrowband satcom systems like the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), which provides secure voice and data to mobile forces.

“How that technology develops is going to play out in how we provide service to the narrowband users,” said Felt.

Felt said these new technologies could give U.S. forces an alternative path to satcom resilience. The Space Force plans to buy two new narrowband communications satellites from either Lockheed Martin or Boeing to modernize the existing constellation of five MUOS satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

The program, called MUOS Service Life Extension, would allow MUOS to provide services well into the 2030s, Felt noted. But the military is looking to experiment with commercial direct-to-cell services as it weighs options for what comes after MUOS.

A Space Force organization known as the Space Warfighting Analysis Center is about to complete a study of the future narrowband architecture, said Felt. “They are looking at all kinds of options. The really disruptive thing here is direct to cell, 5G from space.”

The MUOS service life extension program, siad Felt, “bridges us into the 2030s when we can start migrating away from the current MUOS terminals to something different.”

Direct-to-cell satcom enables basic connectivity like messaging on regular smartphones in areas without cell coverage, by having the phone signal route through a satellite in orbit and then to terrestrial networks. Companies like Starlink, Iridium, Lynk Global, AST SpaceMobile and others are racing to bring these services to market.

Felt pointed out that cybersecurity would need to be closely evaluated with any commercial service. But the technology’s potential upside — instantly connecting troops on any device to resilient satellite communications without special equipment — has the Pentagon eager to test it.

Iridium’s contract

Clare Hopper, head of the Space Force’s Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO), said some direct-to-cell satcom providers have been selected to compete for task orders under the Proliferated Low Earth Orbit satellite services contract.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Hopper said at the Milsatcom USA conference. “It’s a good fit for it,” she added. “That’s usually the most optimal way to go about getting services on contract.”

Hopper said future developments in direct-to-cell technology would reshape the Pentagon’s next contract with Iridium. The company in 2019 won the Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services (EMSS) contract that provides DoD users worldwide access to Iridium’s satellite network, offering unlimited voice calls and narrowband data transmissions.

Iridium is developing a new direct-to-cell service called Project Stardust that will allow standard smartphones to connect to its LEO satellite network.

Hopper noted that Iridium’s contract will be up for renewal in 2026. “Historically, we’ve had a very long and successful partnership with Iridium,” she said. “And we are already planning what the next generation of that program looks like, not just the partnership with Iridium, which we expect to continue, but also what other capabilities might grow into EMSS.”

“We’re really excited about the trajectory of that program and where it might go,” Hopper said. “We’re looking into how to evolve EMSS in general … and the service plans we offer could change as well.”


Sandra Erwin

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...More by Sandra Erwin

New direct-to-cell satellite tech could disrupt billion-dollar military satcom programs (2024)


New direct-to-cell satellite tech could disrupt billion-dollar military satcom programs? ›

The U.S. Space Force

U.S. Space Force
The United States Space Force (USSF) is the space service branch of the United States Armed Forces. Along with the Air Force, it is part of the Department of the Air Force, led by the secretary of the Air Force. › wiki › United_States_Space_Force
is closely watching the development of commercial satellite communications services that allow standard smartphones to connect directly to satellites, seeing the technology as potentially disruptive to existing military narrowband satcom systems like MUOS, officials said June 10.

How much does a military satellite cost? ›

Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems are each building 10 satellites for the initial data communications transport layer, while L3Harris Technologies and SpaceX will develop four satellites each for an advanced missile tracking layer. The average cost of these satellites is about $14.1 million, per Tournear.

What is satcom in the military? ›

The Protected Satellite Communications (SATCOM) Division (MCA) provides the DoD survivable, global, secure, protected, jam-resistant communications for high priority military ground, sea, and air assets. The division executes the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) program.

What does the military use satellites for? ›

A military satellite is an artificial satellite used for a military purpose. The most common missions are intelligence gathering, navigation and military communications. The first military satellites were photographic reconnaissance missions.

What is new in satellite communication? ›

There are now 1,500 Starlink satellites operational of the planned 30,000, and connectivity is now available over major parts of Europe after the initial beta service in the USA and Canada. These beta testers have used land-based terminals accessing a cheap, ultra-fast, low latency communications service.

How much does a US satellite cost? ›

Instead of being the size of a garbage truck, costing as much as $400 million, satellites now are often no larger than a microwave or even a loaf of bread. They cost a fraction of their predecessors, as little as $1 million or less, and can be mass-produced in factories, or in some cases a garage or college classroom.

How much SpaceX satellite cost? ›

SpaceX charges $300,000 to launch a 110-pound payload and $6,000 for each additional pound. One of the satellites launched Monday — MethaneSAT — was developed by a subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund to measure methane emissions across wide swaths of land and sea using a high-resolution infrared instrument.

Who controls SATCOM? ›

The space segment consists of 10 cost-effective, high-throughput Ka- and X-band satellites; controlled and managed by the USSF Space Delta 8's 4th Space Operations Squadron and 53rd Space Operations Squadron. The ground segment boasts thousands of tactical SATCOM terminals.

What are the disadvantages of SATCOM? ›

Satellite Communication Drawbacks

Frequency congestion is a possibility. Problems with transmission and distortion could occur. The process of placing a satellite into orbit is expensive. Satellite systems have a longer propagation delay than typical terrestrial systems.

Which countries have spy satellites? ›

Download Table Data
Country# Military SatellitesOther Uses
China14050 Military/Government
Russia10532 Military/Commercial
France181 Government/Military
Italy131 Government/Military, 1 Civil/Military, 1 Military/Commercial, 5 Military/Government
27 more rows

How accurate are military satellites? ›

The signals are so accurate, time can be figured to within a millionth of a second, velocity within a fraction of a mile per hour and location to within 100 feet. Receivers have been developed for use in spacecraft, aircraft, ships, land vehicles, and precision-guided munitions, as well as for hand carrying.

How does a spy satellite work? ›

Artificial Intelligence & Satellites

In addition to simply taking photographs, the military's newest reconnaissance satellites use artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze and sort captured images. Once this process has gone through the satellite's system, the sorted images are transmitted to ground stations on Earth.

How many military satellites do we have? ›

These designations have been applied to most United States military satellites since 1984, and replaced the earlier OPS designation. As of June 2022, USA designations have been assigned to 331 space satellites.

What is the new satellite internet called? ›

Starlink, though a satellite provider, is a bit different, except for maybe the "expensive" part. Starlink's ever-growing fleet of satellites and the distance at which they orbit the Earth make for a vastly different product than the satellite internet you may be familiar with. Service comes at a high price, however.

What are the 3 types of satellite communication? ›

There are three types of communication services that satellites provide: telecommunications, broadcasting, and data communications.

What is the future of satellite technology? ›

The future of satellite technology will witness the integration of advanced propulsion systems, enabling satellites to move with greater precision and efficiency in orbit. This capability is crucial for satellite constellations, space debris mitigation, and interplanetary exploration.

What is the total cost of satellites? ›

So, while earlier satellites would cost Rs 1,000 crore each to build and launch, Satellize's technology brought this down to under Rs 10 crore each. “These make them radically affordable both for the private and public sectors,” says Mahesh Murthy, Founder & Director, Satellize.

How many military satellites does USA have? ›

Download Table Data
Country# Military SatellitesOther Uses
United States2396 Civil/Military, 1 Government/Military, 35 Military/Commercial
China14050 Military/Government
Russia10532 Military/Commercial
France181 Government/Military
27 more rows

How much does a Boeing satellite cost? ›

U.S. Space Force's Space Systems Command awarded Boeing a contract worth $439.6 million to build the 12th Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) communications satellite. The U.S. Department of Defense announced the contract on March 1. The satellite is expected to be delivered by Jan. 31, 2029.

What is the cost of a GPS satellite? ›

Based on the most recent order of GPS 3F satellites, each costs about $250 million. As Greiner noted, the Space Force has purchased more GPS satellites than it's been able to launch to orbit.

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