New Direct-to-Cell Satellite Technology Could Disrupt Billion-Dollar Military Satcom Programs

The U.S. Space Force is closely monitoring the evolution of commercial satellite communication services that allow standard smartphones to connect directly to satellites. This new technology could potentially disrupt existing military narrowband satellite communication systems such as the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), officials revealed on June 10.

Potential for Disruption

“We view direct-to-cell as a really disruptive thing,” stated 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 emphasized that his office is tracking developments in commercial satellite communications, particularly direct-to-cell services. These advancements could enhance or even replace dedicated military narrowband satcom systems like MUOS, which currently 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,” Felt remarked.

Alternative Path to Satcom Resilience

Felt highlighted that new technologies could offer U.S. forces an alternative path to satellite communication resilience. The Space Force plans to procure two new narrowband communications satellites from either Lockheed Martin or Boeing to modernize the current constellation of five MUOS satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

The program, known as the MUOS Service Life Extension, aims to extend MUOS services into the 2030s. However, the military is also exploring commercial direct-to-cell services as it considers options for the post-MUOS era.

Future Narrowband Architecture Study

A Space Force entity called the Space Warfighting Analysis Center is nearing the completion of a study on future narrowband architecture, according to Felt. “They are looking at all kinds of options. The really disruptive thing here is direct to cell, 5G from space,” he said.

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

Direct-to-Cell Satcom: Bridging Connectivity Gaps

Direct-to-cell satellite communication enables basic connectivity, such as messaging, on regular smartphones in areas without cell coverage. The phone signal routes through a satellite in orbit and then connects to terrestrial networks. Companies like Starlink, Iridium, Lynk Global, AST SpaceMobile, and others are racing to bring these services to market.

Felt stressed that cybersecurity would need to be thoroughly evaluated with any commercial service. However, the technology’s potential to instantly connect troops on any device to resilient satellite communications without special equipment has the Pentagon eager to test it.

Iridium’s Role and Future Contracts

Clare Hopper, head of the Space Force’s Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO), announced that some direct-to-cell satcom providers have been chosen 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.”

Evolving Satellite Communication Programs

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

Iridium is developing a new direct-to-cell service called Project Stardust, which will enable standard smartphones to connect to its Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite network.

Hopper noted that Iridium’s contract is due 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 concluded. “We’re looking into how to evolve EMSS in general … and the service plans we offer could change as well.”

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