As the satellite communications environment is swirling with some potentially major changes – including in how the government and military buy satcom services – many in industry are keeping a close eye and looking for cues of what's next. Currently, the Air Force is conducting an analysis of alternatives, or AoA, for next-generation wideband satcom options. The satcom community is watching closely as the AoA unfolds, and as the Defense Department begins leaning in on managed satcom services.
Skot Butler, Intelsat General Corporation president, is watching, too. The veteran satellite industry executive recently spoke with C4ISRNET to offer his perspective on the changing world of satcom, what the commercial sector is looking for from the government and where he sees things heading amid an evolution in the industry.
C4ISRNET: Let's start with talking about the AoA, since it's a pretty hot topic in satcom right now. From your perspective, what are you seeing? What does the AoA mean for you?
SKOT BUTLER: There is quite a large group of people working that analysis of alternatives with lots of different work streams. One of those work streams is a commercial work stream which, while it is not comprised of people actually from the commercial world, there are inputs and opportunities for us in commercial industry to get our thoughts into that process. As a large and important customer of the industry, it's obviously strategically important to us in what they do next in terms of how they'll handle their wideband satcom into the future. That's certainly one piece.
It connects directly to sort of a larger conversation that we've been having around commercialization, which would include not just the space segment piece but also what they do on the ground. So how do they fly their satellites? There is a pending RFP…for the flight operations of the [Wideband Global Satcom, or WGS] constellation, and also it looks like now they're going to add the [Defense Satellite Communications System, or DSCS] constellation onto that as well. They're looking at commercializing that operation, allowing [industry] to fly their satellites for them.
For us that's important that we understand and that we're part of whatever that long-term architecture is, rather than playing more of a spot-market purchasing and so forth, which is largely the way the relationship has been for the past decade or so.
C4ISRNET: Can you talk about why it's important to get away from spot-market purchasing and move more toward a long-term architecture?
BUTLER: From the commercial industry's perspective, one downside is that [spot-market purchasing] really inhibits our ability to do long-term planning of our fleet, and our replacement strategy of our satellites, our technology roadmap around what we believe would be the best for some of the more specialized needs of a government user.
Going back to my comment about being designed into the long-term architecture: It doesn't even necessarily mean that we're out there saying "hey, if you don't give us a contact for 10 or 20 years guaranteeing us X, then we're not going to do anything." But [we could better plan] if we knew about the architecture, which is fairly sort of public, right? They put together an architecture, they talk about it and they plan for it. They do all their planning around it. You can see the effects of it in budget documents and things like that.
If we saw that that architecture was something that they had committed to, that would be just as important as actually getting handed a signed contract for long-term because you would see that they're going to be there for that long-term, and again, we can plan around that. We can accelerate things in our technology roadmap that we know are important. Obviously, we like to have contracts that last for more than a year and that aren't sort of contingent on that one-year funding cycle. That would be nice from just a standard business perspective. But the planning is really the key and the architecture really is the key.
C4ISRNET: Do you think the AoA is going to help with that planning piece?
BUTLER: Again, it should result in an architecture. The government is in a position where they have to start thinking about recapitalizing, what is next, not just for wideband, although that's what we are primarily interested in. They're actually at that point with a number of their satellite mission areas. That process takes some time and potentially if they decide to get dedicated, purpose-built spacecraft, it would take a very long time to get it through all the definition of requirements and the competition and the development and all the rest of it.
But [it would be ideal] if they came out of the analysis of alternatives and essentially said okay, we are going to proceed in such a fashion, and that architecture included very clearly a role, the more specific the better, that they planned for commercial to play. I mean a role other than sort of status quo. That, to me, would be success and would give us a path and something to point to as we go as a company to make our capital plans and to make our investments. It would be a lot easier for me to make an argument, to make investments that might be specifically targeted at government-military sorts of users, if I could point to an architecture and say, "see this is demonstrable here that this is what they're planning on." Again, there may be some contractual pieces that ultimately come along with that too. Particularly if they wanted us to accelerate our technology deployment in some way. There are things that are in our technology roadmap that could be beneficial to them, maybe that we have now in our roadmap in the five to 10-year timeline, and there's no reason we couldn't accelerate those sooner if we thought there was a return on that investment.
C4ISRNET: Managed services is another hot topic in satcom right now – specifically, DoD contracting out satcom services much like NASA has done for the last decade. What are you seeing in managed services from where you sit?
BUTLER: We've all had a managed service in the form of our mobile phones, and even landline really before that…you've just been buying services around those sorts of things for a long time. This is sort of an extension of that, but it does require relinquishing a certain amount of control.
Cloud computing is probably even a better analogy. You see all agencies moving toward that as a way to be more efficient in how they use their resources to allow faster technology upgrades. If you have to invest in equipment and equipment becomes either obsolete or out-of-date in 18 months, then you're constantly recapitalizing. You have big spikes in your budget. If, instead, you can pay for a service which includes upgrades as technologies are available over time, it frees up potentially not just dollars but people from actually managing things like hardware and the like. They can go focus on whatever the primary mission is. It's the same concept with what we're talking about: It's a way to literally gain the efficiencies out of what we do and leveraging us with more than just buying bandwidth.