The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency remains a major customer for many satellite fleet operators. But it is buying less, and wasting less of what it buys. Credit: DISA

LONDON — The U.S. military, perhaps anticipating the arrival of several global broadband satellite constellations, is turning its focus to low-latency capacity even as it trims its annual purchase of commercial satellite bandwidth.

The reduction has come both in the amount of bandwidth secured from commercial satellite providers and the per-megahertz price paid by the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), the chief of DISA’s ComSatCom support branch said.

Michael Nichols said the reduced overall spend, which is visible in the contract volumes reported by fleet operators including Intelsat, SES, Inmarsat and Eutelsat, is due both to the reduced U.S. military presence in the Middle East and to the increaed competition among satellite fleet operators.

“Not only is the [U.S. Defense Department] using less bandwidth, we are also seeing the price of that bandwidth going down,” Nichols said here Nov. 8 at the Global MilSatCom conference, organized by SMi Group. “There is a lot of competition in our contract structures, where we have a number of players competing. There is a lot of capacity out there, and it is growing.”

Reducing the amount of purchased capacity left stranded in orbit

In 2012 DISA estimated that at any given time it was using less than 10% of its $1 billion in annual commercial satelilte communications capacity, much as a pay-television subscriber is not watching TV 24 hours a day.

Since then, the agency has revamped its contracting procedures to bring in new providers to promote competitive bids. In that same five-year period, the military has sharply reduced the amount of capacity it needs over Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time, the amount of available commercial satellite capacity worldwide has increased substantially. It is now a buyer’s market for all customers, not just DISA, and per-megahertz prices have dropped.

Nichols said DISA today manages more than 90 contracts with commercial satellite-bandwidth vendors and has become adept at fine-tuning contracts to purchase monthly per-megabyte packages and managed services that include more than the simply contracting of a given transponder on a given satellite.

Nichols said that as of August, 29 suppliers have been cleared to respond to DISA RFPs.

“We are using [satellite bandwidth] more efficiently and we are not necessarily buying more,” Nichols said. “We have been decreasing our procurement” since 2012.

DISA now manages multiple a la carte contracts that provide more than raw transponder capacity. Credit: DISA

DISA has established five Pathfinder contract vehicles as it increases the proportion of its managed-services contracts, which help the agency reduce the purchase of “stranded” capacity. “We have the metrics and the numbers that show we have been successful with bandwidth utilization and understanding customer requirements,” Nichols said.

DISA’s customers have shown an increased interest in low-latency services, meaning those that provide round-trip time between a ground station, to the satellite and back to the ground.

Low latency can be defined many ways, but many of the global broadband satellite constellations now being planned for non-geostationary orbit — most still awaiting regulatory approval and go-ahead financing — use low latency has a sales pitch.

Just checking: Anyone got a spare 77 Gbps over South Korea?

DISA earlier this year sent a request for information to industry that was centered on high-bandwidth, low-latency applications in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions.

While this has not led to a request for proposals, the request gave insight into how some U.S. military services — DISA’s customers — are thinking:

Location & Data Rate (Mbps)

Bagram, Afghanistan 6,000

Kabul, Afghanistan 3,000

American Somoa 1,000

Ascension Island 1,000

Azore Islands 1,000

Bahrain, Bahrain 3,600

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba 1,000

Diego Garcia 1,000

Djibouti, Djibouti 9,000

Croughton, England 3,000

Guam Island 1,000

Jordan 1,244

Wiesbaden, Germany 2,422

Thule Air Base, Greenland 600

Aviano, Italy 200

Capodichino, Italy 3,200

Iwakuni, Japan 1,800

Kwajalein Atoll 1,000

Al Udeid, Qatar 622

Multiple Locations, South Korea 600 to 30,000 (Aggregate 77,000)

Saipan, Mariana Islands 1000

Incirlik, Turkey 400

Hawaii, USA 1,000

At least two recipients of the request did not believe DISA was asking for so much capacity. Surely the agency’s unit of measure was Kbps, not Mbps? “This seems much more reasonable,” one of them wrote to DISA.

“All rates are in Mbps,” DISA responded. “If the data-rate requirement cannot be met, contractors should identify what full-duplex rates can be provided to the locations using a low-latency satellite communications service.”

By full-duplex DISA said it meant less than 250 milliseconds round-trip time between the contractor-provided gateway Earth station and the military installations listed above.

DISA said that if neither the volume nor the low-latency requrements could be met, industry should identify what is available over these locations.

“There were some queries by the military services on what was available at that region and so we gathered the information in close cooperation with the customer,” Nichols said about the request for information. He said DISA understands that some of the requirements — such as 77 Gbps over South Korea — cannot be met. “It was to understand what was available,” he said.

DISA has issued a request for information from industry asking about low-latency satellite capacity over certain regions. Anyone have 77 Gbps over South Korea? Credit: DISA

While this RFI’s specifications will need to await the arrival in low Earth orbit of a lot more high-throughput satellite capacity, DISA has awarded contracts to SES’ Networks for O3b medium-Earth-orbit capacity. SES has said it now has 13 separate sites in service for the U.S. military using O3b bandwidth.

“We did one backhaul acquisition for backhaul capacity where the latency identified wwas less than 150 milliseconds — fiber-like latency — on a MEO constellation,” Nichols said. “That was used to support a backhaul capability of large amounts of bandwidth.”